Tag: youth

What are teens getting up to online in Africa’s innovation hub?

“In boarding school there were a group of girls who were from Nairobi and they were hip and cool, they were computer literate … They would open email accounts for us and show us how to go about the internet and so on, that is how I learnt how to use the internet … log into Facebook and even text our boyfriends back home.” – Female, 15-17, Kitui, Kenya

I remember the first time I heard about Facebook – it was early in 2007 while I was attending university. My sister was on an exchange abroad and encouraged me to join. By the end of that same year I had connected with all my university friends and even some old friends from school.

Fast forward six years, and the first memories of using the world’s most popular social media site come back to me when I was presented with the findings of A (Private) Public Space, a study about the use of the Internet and social media among adolescents in Kenya. Based primarily on focus group discussions conducted in three locations in the country, one of our main motivations for undertaking this particular study was to understand the how and why of what Kenyan children and youth are doing online.

Scholars watch the film Madagascar in the computer lab at Mwelu Foundation in Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Supplied)
Scholars watch the film Madagascar in the computer lab at Mwelu Foundation in Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Unicef Kenya/2013/Huxta)

The title of the study comes from a sentiment expressed by the majority of participants – that social media and their mobile phones give them the opportunity to construct their own private worlds, to explore their identities free from the interference of family members, to strengthen existing social connections and to establish new ones.

“On the internet you are more confident than face to face. There are some things you can say there that you fear saying face to face.” – Male, 15-17, Kisii

While the findings are not nationally representative – a limitation of the methodology – the study provides a fascinating look into the habits and uses of the Internet and social media by young people in the country. While less than one-third of Kenyans have access to the Internet, the proliferation of affordable Internet-enabled mobile phones and flexible pre-paid schemes is helping to shift this rapidly. Kenya also has one the largest Facebook and Twitter user bases on the continent and the popularity of social media was clearly expressed by the study participants.

It is also not uncommon to hear of Kenya being referred to as the Silicon Valley of Africa, yet in spite of the country’s status as an ICT innovation hub, the study found that overall digital media was not fully integrated into the participants’ learning environments and education. While some shared examples of using the Internet and their mobile phones to research topics for school, many felt that their parents and caregivers mostly saw the Internet as a distraction from schoolwork and learning.

Risks of online use
In addition to looking at habits and uses, the study also sought to understand how risks associated with online use – including cyber-bullying, suggestive self-exposure, exposure to harmful content, scams, and grooming for sexual exploitation – were perceived by young people, to give us insight that can inform future interventions and awareness-raising campaigns on child online safety.

“This guy I befriended on Facebook, he started telling me to send him photos of myself without clothes on, I told him I can’t, he insisted and I refused, he then started [verbally] abusing me and I called him a few names too, he could not stop and I shared with my older cousin who blocked him for me.” – Female, 15-17, Nairobi South B

The discussions on topics related to online safety revealed that many of the participants appeared to have only an abstract awareness of risk. Many were aware but ultimately did not believe that a dangerous encounter could befall them, or they felt they were employing the right preventative measures, or that being connected ultimately outweighed the risk of online harassment or unpleasant experiences. Knowledge of or interest in changing privacy settings was low, although most reported knowing how to block unwanted interactions.

A teenager texts a friend on a mobile phone at Cura Rotary Home, an orphanage for children who've lost their parents to Aids, in Cura village, 20km from central Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Supplied)
A teenager texts a friend on a mobile phone at Cura Rotary Home, an orphanage for children who’ve lost their parents to Aids, in Cura village, 20km from central Nairobi, Kenya. (Pic: Unicef Kenya/2013/Huxta)

For me the clear take-away from the discussions on risk and safety with Kenyan teens is that in order to be successful, any awareness-raising and educational efforts need to take into account all these complexities.

Approaches based on fear-mongering or preaching are unlikely to be effective. This is not to suggest that children and youth should not be taught about the potential risks of immersion in the digital world. However outreach messaging should balance issues of safety with the developmental and learning opportunities afforded by the Internet, and promote positive online interaction through the concept of digital citizenship.

There is a real opportunity here to empower peer support groups and youth organisations to take the lead on this, while at the same time working with parents, teachers and child protection services to strengthen their ability to provide support, and working with policy makers to improve relevant policies and legal environments. By doing this, we can start to create environments where opportunities are maximised and risk is minimised – and children and youth in middle-income and developing countries have the right base from which to emerge as leaders in the global information and communication technology sector.

You can download the full report here.

Kate Pawelczyk is the project manager of Voices of Youth Citizens – a UNICEF initiative that seeks to understand how young people in middle-income and developing countries are using digital media to inform awareness-raising, interventions and policy advocacy. Kate is South African and currently based in New York City. Any questions about the study in Kenya or the Voices of Youth Citizens initiative can be directed to her via email.

Facebook courting, Mogadishu-style

A tall figure in a black hijab and face veil strides confidently towards 20-year-old Ahmed Noor’s computer terminal. Only her dark brown eyes and eyelashes, thick with mascara, are visible.

On reaching Noor, she lifts her hijab to reveal manicured nails and gold rings on her fingers. In her hand she’s holding a folded white piece of paper. With a wink she passes it to Noor and walks off into the busy street outside.

Noor unfolds the paper. There’s a Facebook profile link and an email address written on it. It’s now up to him to take the next step.

This is post civil-war courting, Mogadishu-style.

In the conservative Muslim society, social networking is a popular and easy way through which Somalis can interact with members of the opposite sex.

Slow internet speeds – fibre optic cables are yet to reach us – and expensive internet café rates of up to 60 US cents per hour do not deter Somalis from staying connected. Internet penetration in the country is only at about 2% but it’s growing, especially among the youth. Currently there are more than 130 000 Facebook users in Somalia and more than half of them are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Despite the hardline al-Shabab group no longer controlling the Somali capital and imposing its own version of Sharia law, many women still wear the face veil. The only place their faces are visible is on their Facebook profiles. Even then, they’re a step ahead in concealing their real identity thanks to photo-editing software.

“Many girls come to us to have their photos altered. We exchange, for example, the head of an actress with theirs so the picture has their face on an actress’s body,” says Sharif Hussein (24) who runs Satellite Photo Studio. It’s conveniently located next to an internet café.

“They usually tell me they want me to photoshop their pictures so they can send it to potential boyfriends or husbands on Facebook.”

Some university students and working professionals prefer studio shoots instead of what Hussein calls a ‘virtual body part swap’. They stop at the Mogadishu Beauty Salon a short drive away to have their hair and make-up done professionally before arriving at his studio.

Saida Ahmed, a colourful woman in both appearance and personality, runs the popular beauty salon. She’s wearing a bright orange dress, her hair is dyed orange with henna and her ear lobes stretch under the weight of gold earrings.

“Some girls come here black and want to look white, so I make sure they leave the salon white. I’m here to help other sisters succeed with their Facebook missions,” she tells me while applying cream on a client’s face.

(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)
(Graphic: Kenny Leung, M&G)

But Somali guys aren’t impressed with the visual tricks girls are employing on Facebook. “They look like Iman [the Somali supermodel] on their Facebook profile and they sound like Farxiya Fiska a [popular female singer] on the phone, but in reality they are neither,” complains Noor.

Back at the internet café where I’m hanging out with him and his friends, all the females are wearing face veils. One of them, Amina (19), is chatting on Facebook and showing off her two Chinese-made smart phones to friends over a webcam.

I ask her about Somali women’s preference for digitally enhanced photos and she retorts that Somali men shouldn’t complain.

“Men in Mogadishu tell lies to your face, we at least tell it behind a screen. They have two, three, four wives and still tell you they are single,” she says, breaking into high-pitched laughter.

Her friend Shamsa calls me over to her terminal and shows me her Facebook friends list. Most of the men on it look more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than typical Somalis.

“Guys do the same thing that we do! And worse,” Shamsa points out, clicking through the men’s photos. “They all look like wrestlers. You will not find a skinny Somali man on Facebook. They don’t look like Mo Farah.”

Hussein concurs with Shamsa and admits to helping many men doctor their photos. “Plenty of them come to my studio too. They usually ask me to swap their torsos with those of bodybuilders.”

With these tricks up their sleeves, courting on Facebook can be entertaining and exciting but religious leaders in Mogadishu aren’t happy about it. Sheikh Abdi Haji, a religious studies lecturer at Mogadishu University and imam of Zobe Mosque is vocal in his opposition to youngsters searching for life partners on the social network.

“There is a guy who wanted to marry a lady he met on Facebook. He paid the dowry only to find out on the wedding night she is a cripple. She didn’t tell him before they got married, nor did the pictures on her Facebook show she is a cripple.” Youth should stay away from Facebook, Sheikh Abdi says, because it’s full of “hypocrites”.

Noor, Amina and Shamsa wouldn’t reveal whether flirting on Facebook has paid off for them. They, like other young Somalis, are ever wary of the “religious police” and prefer to keep their relationships quiet to avoid trouble. There’s no way they’ll give up Facebook, though.

Noor takes out the piece of paper that the mysterious young woman had handed to him earlier. He’s going to take the next step. And, he tells me quietly, he’s come up with a solution to avoid being duped by Somali ‘supermodels’.

“I don’t go for girls with very pretty profile photos. They’re photoshopped. If she’s average-looking with spots on her face, I talk to her.”

Hamza Mohamed is an independent Britishi-Somali journalist. Connect with him on Twitter

Funking up the Queen’s English

There’s a trending joke in Ghana’s business schools today that goes like this: a Canadian investor who owns a call centre in Accra dialled his business all the way from Vancouver, only to be greeted with: “Holla client, I gotta take your call big big up ayew …”

Baffled by the lack of ‘standard’ English, the owner revealed his identity to his employee and threatened: “I gotta take your call big big up? Do you think I’m still going to invest in your country and guarantee your job?”

The call centre employee’s fun and flexible street English is a new form of the Queen’s English that can be heard in Accra’s bars, hotels, schools, taxis and airports. When describing your recent whereabouts you say: “Aye wiv been dere now now.” When friends are hungry you’ll hear whistles of “Chaley, you chop?” and replies like “No, I go weg small.”

This blended language known as Ghanaian English is “the final curtain on the voice of colonialism”, one student I spoke to boasted.

I once struck up a conversation with the receptionist at a local lodge I was staying at.

“Have you eaten yet?” I asked.

She merely sighed and replied: “No I eat after small small, sir.”

“Small small?”

She shrugged and explained: “I simply mean I’ll eat when I show you your room.”

This increasing desire by young Ghanaians to ‘modify’ the Queen’s English has sparked a debate between conservative old Ghanaians and the street-savvy, upwardly mobile youth.

On one end lie the young, hip and patriotic who are busy inventing a new slang vocabulary. If you hear tax vendors saying “go quench”, they mean “die”. When you eavesdrop on hippie girls in a bank queue saying “wack, garl”, what they mean is “eat, girl.” If you spot a high school chap bitterly complaining that “I was held in a go-slow, man” he means he was caught in a traffic jam.

On the other extreme are old-school die-hard Ghanaians, usually Oxbridge-educated, who equate speaking with a proper London or ‘BBC’ accent with status and education. This group heaps derision and insults on the youth who’ve adopted the ‘lafa’ (locally acquired foreign accent).

But Ghanaian youth are proud of the lafa.  Some may be Akan (a language spoken in South Ghana) speakers but they also don’t want to sound too ‘Londonish’ when they speak English. A variety of English exists in the UK itself, they attest. “You don’t expect [to hear] the same English in Aberdeen, Wales and Ireland,” a hippie college major scrolling through her iPad in an Accra boutique tells me.  “Just observe the thick Yorkshire accent in Ian Rankin novels.”

Speaking English with an Oxbridge accent carried prestige for almost half a century after Ghana’s independence in 1960. Now, young Ghanaians are beginning to embrace Ghanaian English. These adventurous linguists claim that Ghana has outstanding achievers in chemistry, diplomacy, tourism, law or education who’ve never stepped a foot outside the country’s borders. They say that former UN chief Kofi Annan speaks fluent Ghanaian English on the international stage but is easily understood from Syria to Venezuela to Scotland.

The traditionalists, however, argue that while Kofi Annan speaks with a Ghanaian accent, his use of English grammar is perfect and, as far as they recall, they’ve never heard him addressing the UN General Assembly in “pidgin Ghanaian English”.

This generation of young language inventors have been spurred further by an explosion in technology, music and movies. In the past, many Ghanaians pop singers mimicked Madonna, Tupac or Beyoncé. Now a new brigade of local artists wearing Ghanaian name tags and brands have come to the fore. “The idea is to mix western music styles with our Accra accents and rhythms for a home audience,” explains Pio Fawcett, a local DJ.

This infatuation with a localised version of English is not unique to Ghana. Long back, our West African neighbours from Nigeria and Sierra Leone eased into speaking English on the international stage with a heavy local accent. Nigerians call it Pidgin English while Creole English is synonymous with Sierra Leone.

To douse fierce criticism from the educated Ghanaian elite that they’re diluting the Queen’s language, the youth argue that Ghanaian English unites the country. “We’re not watering down the Queen’s language,” explains Ammond Kotto, a dental science graduate who’s returned from studying in London. “Look at Israel. It was a disparate country of refugees coming from all corners of the globe until Hebrew became the common denominator that made it a nation.”

Language purists in Ghana further argue that English is the mainstay of the internet and global commerce, and any country that waters it down will be sidelined. Ammond is quick with his rebuttal. “Do you mean China, a non-English speaking country, is left out of global commerce?” he asks.

Whatever the merits or demerits of this slang, speaking grammatically correct English with a Ghanaian accent is fine by me. However, “I eat after small small” is going too far down the Ebonics road.

Kingston Ayew is a Ghanaian living in Accra.