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Fahamu: Pan-African Text Messaging for Social Justice
Emily Gertz, 31 Oct 05

thumbs down 2 povertyFahamu uses information communication technologies to conduct pan-African campaigns for human rights and social justice. Founded in 1997 by Firoze Manji, a former director of Amnesty International's Africa program, the 11-odd staffers at Fahamu work in Oxford, UK, and Durban and Cape Town, South Africa -- and coordinate with a network of like-minded writers, scholars, educators and activists worldwide.

Fahamu (a word meaning 'consciousness' or 'comprehension' in Kiswahili) fields digital publishing and communications -- CD-ROMs, the web, e-newsletters, and now, mobile phone text messaging -- in diverse ways that let the group, in Manji's words, "pack a punch larger than our weight" to support progressive social change in Africa, empower Africans to control their own economies and political systems -- and stave off a repeat of the tragedies that hang over the heads of African social justice activists.

"Rwanda, and the genocide in Rwanda, reflect, for most of us on the continent, a future mirror," Manji said when I talked with him and colleagues Patrick Burnett and Becky Faith at September's MobileActive Convergence.

"Our histories are very similar, and the crises which we face are similar -- just as in 1994, at one end of the continent you had an emancipatory struggle that led to the downfall of apartheid, you had another on the other end decimated by genocide. We all recognize that those components co-exist in our countries. But these outcomes are not inevitable."

Fahamu's distance learning courses for African human rights organizations, are distributed on CD-ROM and coordinated via e-mail networks that also give participants the opportunity to forge relationships and alliances across borders. Through these courses, Fahamu has trained about 300 people in 160 organizations throughout Africa in subjects ranging from activist intensives -- like the basics of human rights activism, or campaigning for access to information -- to organizational capacity-building -- financial management, leadership skills, fundraising and more -- to understanding the role of the media in the Rwanda genocide.

"What we do at Fahamu -- the distance learning courses, production of activist newsletter which gives platform to challenging dominant views," says Manji, "is absolutely critical to contribute to creating a movement prevents Rwanda from becoming a mirror of our future."

Fahamu's team grew intrigued about the possibilities of text messaging as a tool for social justice because of the phenomenal growth of its flagship publication -- the electronic Pambazuka News, which combines news, commentary, analysis and resource sharing on social justice into a primary outlet for progressive views from across Africa. Key focus areas include women's rights and debt cancellation. About 90 writers have contributed to Pambazuka News so far this year alone -- helping make it the continent's leading social justice newsletter.

Launched in December 2000 with about 300 subscribers, today Pambazuka ('dawn' or 'daybreak' in Kiswahili) News reaches nearly 18,000 with each edition, and subscribers increase by around 15 percent a year; the associated web edition gets about 250 thousand hits a month.

In the staff's analysis, much of Pambazuka's power comes from its dual role as both a public space -- a reliable and unique outlet for conveying African progressive thoughts,ideas and analysis, and dispelling myths about Africa, to a huge, pan-African audience -- and a protected space, one that activists can count on to support them in their struggles for social change at home.


PETITION: [your name here] :: send

In 2004, Fahamu joined a coalition of human rights groups supporting ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Adopted by the African Union in 2003, this protocol protects a wide array of women's human rights, in some ways breaking new ground in international law -- but needed to be ratified by 15 countries in the African Union to come into force.

In discussing how to best employ Pambazuka News to support the coalition's efforts to get the women's rights protocol ratified, Fahamu staff landed on the idea of taking advantage of the huge growth of mobile phones in Africa. While there were between 5-8 million Africans were email users, as of January 2004, there were approximately 52 million mobile phone subscribers in Africa, with a projected 67 million by the end of 2005. Mobiles have not only leapfrogged the development of fixed-line telecommunications infrastructure in Africa, but also surged well beyond the internet as a primary communications tool. And each one of thoe phones contained Short Message Service (SMS) functionality -- the ability to deliver a brief text message.

The campaign for the Women's Rights Protocol provided the opportunity to test whether this mass of "texters" could be mobilized for a social justice campaign. Fahamu decided to augment a web-based petition gathering legally valid signatures from across the African Union in support of the protocol with an SMS service that would let mobile users text in their signatures, and have them reflected on the online petition page.

To set up the SMS petition campaign, Fahamu first researched what bulk SMS services already existed in Africa for receiving text messages from across the continent, and converting them into emails. The provider would also need to be able to send bulk e-mails -- in this case, key campaign updates on the Women's Rights Protocol to people who subscribed to such a service. While most providers claimed extensive infrastructure for pushing out a single mass text message, this phase also revealed uncertainty around receiving messages, thanks to the lack of a unified mobile phone infrastructure in Africa. Fahamu found that there are upwards of 50 different systems, with no agreements between them on message handling.

Fahamu staff developed software to handle incoming messages via a single number based in South Africa. Callers were instructed to text in messages in a standard format: the word 'petition,' followed by their name, and then just send -- a country code would be included automatically. The SMS messages were received as emails and then processed by a script which extracted the name and country from which they were sent. Staff reviewed the entries, and then added correct name and country information to a database of signers which had already been developed for use with the existing online petition. SMS'd signatures were specially noted.

Outgoing SMS campaign updates were dispatched via a web form supplied by the bulk SMS provider -- with an estimated 68-73 percent successfully received. The messages were composed in a style that an earlier generation might have called telegraphic, and ranged from factiods to fanfare:

'Protocol on Rts of Women in Africa: Right in Article 5 'not to be subjected to harmful traditional practices including female genital mutilation (FGM)'.

'Rts of Women in Africa SMS: FGM afflicts estimated 130m, 6000 per day mostly in Africa. Protocol obligates states to act. More info www.pambazuka.org'

'25 Nov: Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women/Start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Join activities in your country! www.pambazuka.org'

'Congratulations South Africa! SA has become the 7th country to ratify the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. www.pambazuka.org for more information.'

Press push spiked SMS signatures

In coordination with coalition partners, Fahamu officially launched the SMS signature campaign on July 29, 2004 with both a media press release and special mention in Pambazuka News, asking readers to sign the petition, get friends and colleagues to sign, and for women's rights organizations to request related pamphlets to hand out (these were ultimately distributed to Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as the Seventh Regional Conference on Women (Beijing + 10), and the Fourth African Development Forum on Governance in Ethiopia). The information was picked up by other women's rights and social justice groups, which along with press coverage helped propel a spike in SMS signatures -- including two articles on BBC News, All Africa, South Africa's Sunday Argus, the industry news site Cellular News, and more.

An informal survey on the campaign netted postive feedback on the advent of mobile phones as campaign tools. "Speaking on behalf of Kampala," ran one response, "petitions or information through SMS is a very effective way of campaigning as almost everyone has cell phones and use SMS on a daily basis. Even people at work sometimes send SMS more than emails to each other. Whereas finding internet cafes etc are more costly and less convenient."

But having a South African destination number turned out be a barrier for some -- Fahamu encounterd resistance to calling in to a country whose influence on matters beyond its own borders is often keenly felt, resented, or resisted.

Overall, though, Fahamu staff feel the SMS effort has been a success. The petition collected upwards of 4,000 signatures, nearly 500 via text messaging -- a relatively small number, but significant in its pan-African nature, with messages of support from 29 African countries.* Fahamu avers that "it's sexy just to have done it." Technology issues have been ironed out -- such as easily transferring text messages onto a web site -- giving Fahamu has another tool they can deploy to grassroots groups. For example, the system enables people and groups in areas with little or no internet connectivity to update a web site via text messaging, again leveraging the incredible adoption rate of mobile phones across Africa to get progressive messages out to a wider audience.

And on October 28, 2005, Pambazuka News announced that on October 26, Togo became the fifteenth nation to ratify the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa -- the 'yes' vote that begins the 30-day countdown to bring the protocol into force across the African Union.

Next-gen pan-African SMS activism: Thumbs Down 2 Poverty

Fahamu's taking the lessons learned on the protocol petition effort directly into its latest text messaging campaign, in support of the larger Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a loose alliance of over 70 global groups calling for cancellation of Africa's debt to the developed world.

The GCAPSMS campaign -- at gcapsms.org -- asks texters to send 'No to debt' along with a call to end poverty in their own words -- making use of a new technology Fahamu's developed that allows users to send longer political messages. The GCAPSMS web site fields Fahamu's technology strengths neatly, including fresh content from Pambazuka News, regularly updated SMS's from all over the globe (after review and approval by a site administrator), as well as a nice community-building feature: a RSS feed of these messages.

Manji likened this initial foray into the uncharted waters of mobile phone activism to a blind person tapping around with a white stick to figure out which way to proceed -- a proof of concept for what mobile phone organizing could become. "We didn't have a clue what would happen, or what the reception would be," he said. "It was just such a crazy idea, and even if it didn't work, out of failures -- you learn. Some of the best stuff we've done has come out of stuff that's gone badly."

"We thought we'd done something run of the mill, that everyone here at MobileActive would have done something like this long ago," said Manji. "But it turned out it's something no one else has ever done. This is new technology, it's growing all the time -- so the potential is growing all the time. We're here to learn as much as we can, exploring new ideas.

"That characterizes Fahamu: we're driven by purpose, and use the technology to support it."


Second in my series of reportbacks from September's MobileActive: Cell Phones for Civic Engagement convergence.

* Fahamu received SMS messages in support of the Protocol on Women's Rights from Angola; Botswana; Burundi, Cameroon; DRC; Ethiopia; Gambia; Ghana; Guinea; Ivory Coast; Kenya; Liberia; Malawi; Mali; Mauritius; Mozambique; Namibia; Nigeria; Rwanda; Senegal; Sierra Leone; Somalia; South Africa; Sudan; Swaziland; Tanzania; Uganda; Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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Comments

Excellent piece, Emily -- in many ways an emblematic WC post.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 31 Oct 05

Thanks, Jamais.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 31 Oct 05

Really happy you covered this, Emily - Pambazuka is an amazing resource, and Fahamu as a whole does great stuff. Very cool to see an SMS campaign work... even if the scale's pretty small at this point.


Posted by: Ethan on 1 Nov 05

Thinking of how Africans who are short on literacy,inspires me to think what the potential might be in sending short videos, as this technology is becomes more and more commonplace in the third world.


Posted by: Diane on 3 Nov 05

Another small effort to boost the world's knowledge and understanding of Africa: you are invited to share your photos of East Africa with Swahili students around the world. Check out the Swahili Dictionary Photo Uploader instructions for more info.


Posted by: Kamusi Project on 9 Nov 05

This is a "wonderfully informative" website! Please keep up the excellent work. Peace.


Posted by: Ron Gordon on 10 Nov 05



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