Blogging Young. An interview with Vijana FM

Vijana FM - meaning 'Youth ' in Swahili- is a web platform for visual, audio, or print content, based in Dar Es Salaam (Tanzania). In this interview, the crew of Vijana tell about the reality of blog discussions in East Africa and how they impact daily lives and society, especially for the East African youth. Being a young person today in EA means observing the rapid changes taking place in communication and most of all, it means be part of this change. However, it is worth noting that the access of young people to communications technology is still very restricted, especially in the remote areas. It is indeed necessary to understand which media works better for people and what people want to talk about.

Interview with Vijana FM crew: Steven Nyabero (Editor), Taha Jiwaji (Author) and Al-Amin Kheraj (Operations), at Vijana FM.  

Q.: Vijana FM is a web platform created 'by and for the youth in East Africa'. Can you tell us more about the concept idea of this project and its objectives? What was the reaction when it was first launched?

A.: The original idea among a few of us about three years ago was to use blogging as a means to collect as well as disseminate entrepreneurship resources. If the resources were small bits of information, they could be composed and hosted at Vijana FM. If the resources were fully-operational organizations, they could be self-hosted and we would try and lend social media-related support. The idea evolved rather than launched into exchange of not only entrepreneurial resources but broader media and knowledge resources as well. The first reaction from Tanzanian public wasn't much; the Internet doesn't reach most of them. But from the Tanzanian diaspora online we observed a growing trend of visitors interested specifically in politics and education in Tanzania. We also received comments encouraging us to continue working online but to think of how to extend the reach of content offline as well.

Q.: How do you evaluate Vijana's experience so far? What have you learnt? What are the key challenges ahead of you?

A.: For an 'open-source' community-driven initiative taking place on the web, we have seen some successes over the last three years. We've built a presence on the web, made good friends, worked with those friends to build new initiatives and are lucky to have a loyal audience. All these things continue to help us generate fresh and thoughtful local and international content. We've also been able to measure a few things, most importantly what kinds of topics raise worthy comments in the digital diaspora. 

Tag cloud for posts on Vijana FM that received between 21-32 comments, ordered alphabetically and sized according to frequency of tag, April 2012.

 

We find three challenges that lie ahead of us: First, we could always do better with more contributors. Blogging is a contested space, but it is in the diversity of subject matters, writing styles and associated discussions that make for rich content. Second, if we would like to get offline as much as we are online, we will need resources to sustain Vijana FM as an organization; for this we are exploring new business models. Third, we would like to bring blog discussions into the Tanzanian public, together with diaspora. One way in which we are starting to do this is by “bridging” Vijana FM and other blogs with TZ media through the use of links in comments (also known as “trackbacks”).

Q.: What does it mean being young in East Africa? Which are the hopes and expectation of the future of the East African youth 2.0?

A.: To us, being young in East Africa means that you are actually part of the majority since demographically, youth (approximately age 18-35) are the highest percentage. It also means observing the rapid changes in communication taking place around us and be able to participate in this communication. At the same time though, vast differences exist in the level of access to and engagement with communication technologies among youth. Vijana FM hopes to be available to as many East African youth as possible as a platform of different communication mediums (audio, visual and print).

What are young peoples' hopes? It's difficult to say because everybody has a say. The answer lies in what is written, reviewed, commented on, learned and acted upon in some way. It's also why social networks - digital or not, since we have been using social 'media' way before Facebook or the printing press - are important for looking for these answers in individual communities.

Q.: Social networks and new media are great tools for participatory and bottom up sharing and exchange (as Vijana) , but obviously they are also used for top-down traditional relations (to increase the fidelity of customers, to get supporters for electoral campaigns or followers for charity and advocacy campaigns). The results are sometimes dubious and I inevitably think at the Kony Campaign by Invisible Children.  Where is the boundary between citizen's agency and participation and citizens' control and manipulation….? How can such a boundary be marked out in the web?

A.: Great question! But, we cannot attempt to find an answer by assuming that the media sets up boundaries/rules/ways of learning online for others to follow. When online, who are we and who are they? This is blurred and difficult to define (let alone defining 'journalism' and 'technology'). Instead, we can try to find an answer by seeing media as a means to an end. It should facilitate discussion of many differing voices that would otherwise not be heard - and out of these voices, in turn, could arise answers to community-wide problems.

Q.: How does Vijana FM relate to those youth in the rural areas where internet access, electricity and the like are obstacles to their participating in the conversation? What has your interaction been thus far and what have you learnt from such interaction?

A.: Vijana FM does not reach youth in rural areas with little to no broadband access. Even though our platform is mobile friendly, not all content is accessible on all mobile devices. To improve multi-media access to our content, we are exploring ways to develop a mobile channel potentially over SMS or over low-power radio. However, when it comes to questions of access, we find that it is difficult to understand media in the traditional fashion where the goal is to create more standardized media. We all need to make an effort to understand which media works better and what people want to talk about in each community, with respect to their particular social, economic and political values. 

Interview by Angela Zarro.

 

* This is a follow-up article of Development Vol. 55.2 Citizenship for Change produced in partnership with Hivos. Click here to read the other contributions on citizenship related issues for DevelopmentPLUS

Vijana FM -'Youth FM' in Swahili- is a platform for visual, audio, or print content, based in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The content is generated by the youth in East Africa. The objective is to provide a media-based platform that youth can use to share, exchange, and develop ideas for sustainable development in East Africa. Read, listen, watch, contribute @  www.vijana.fm

Photo: Rehema Chachage, new media artist based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Click here to access the artist's portfolio.