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Viral bananas? Hoax rumour spreads in Mozambique

5 Dec

From the Daily What:

Sales of curved yellow fruit have dropped significantly in Mozambique following the circulation of a rumor that bananas were infecting people with necrotising fasciitis — a skin-eating disease.

“From the work conducted by the Ministries of Agriculture, Health and Trade and Industry, it was concluded that there is no record of entry of any infected banana in the country,” said the country’s health minister in a statement.

The rumor, which spread virally via email and text, specifically warned consumers to avoid bananas from the neighbouring South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. The decline in bananas sales surprised the government, as Mozambique doesn’t import bananas from South Africa.

The agriculture ministry in South Africa was forced to release a similar statement countering claims made by the hoax email — particularly the part about burning skin surrounding a suspected area of infection.

This recent hoax appears to be a direct descendant of a similar urban legend that came to be known as “The Great Internet Banana Scare of 2000.”



Madagascar: an SMS away from the news

12 May


Foko Ushahidi screenshot

Foko Ushahidi screenshot

The growing community of bloggers in Madagascar is using the Kenyan web interface Ushahidi to report from the ground about the current Malagasy power struggle. Using SMS text messaging and online mapping tool Google Maps, bloggers are capturing witness accounts of social unrest, giving the global blogosphere an insight into life on the island, that is not all the Disney movie makes out.

Bloggers who started the Foko Blog Club (several bloggers around the country have been trained) are behind the new Foko alert system, which aims to empower ordinary Malagasy people who are increasingly growing to distrust the mainstream media. These citizens can now upload reports of unrest around the country and have them added immediately to an online map.

But what does this easily accessible new media technology mean for journalism?

Kenyan elections

The alert system is powered by Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’- in Swahili), which was used to map in real-time results of the Kenyan presidential election. It allowed for a bottom-up citizen spotlight on riots and violence that could be done easily from a mobile phone especially when cyber cafes were under surveillance.

It meant Kenyans did not have to rely on the foreign media for their own news and information could be disseminated in the many unofficial dialects spoken in Kenya. Blogging was intended to ease tension and promote peaceful resolutions in the election aftermath and content was not motivated by the need to supply sensational stories to an editor.

Potentially dangerous

However, this highly accessible form of citizen journalism also showed its sinister side. Text messages were used to threaten and intimidate journalists. Inboxes were infiltrated with messages that fanned ethic hatred and violence between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu tribes that echoed dissemination in Rwanda that was ultimately a catalyst for the genocide.

Citizen journalism

Ushahidi has provided a fantastic participatory media tool, but the events in Kenya are a warning sign of the undermining possibilities.

Does the title ‘citizen journalism’ actually deserve the latter word? The use of online media opens the back door to unethical and unprofessional content. How does the Malagasy system propose to moderate alerts?

Working behind the scenes is blogger Tahina Rak told Global Voices Online that Ushahidi is “a kind of platform where everybody is invited to submit reports. The main objective is to find real facts, and to distinguish rumours from truth.”

The hub through which the SMS messages pass is monitored. A team of bloggers check reports for accuracy, but only after they have been posted. In the case of an influx of a high frequency messages, say when a major event occurs, some reports could run the risk of going unchecked. Is there a proper code set out for moderation? Moderation and amendments at one’s own discretion could simply be classed as censoring. This new media is also at risk of being hijacked with ‘planned’ messages all at once.

Tahina said:

[W]e have bloggers on the ground and will be counting on them. But we will also use all media – newspapers, television and radio to help verify. We also have Twitter now, where we can compare and contrast information. We won’t verify reports unless we are sure of them.

Technical challenges

Foko Ushahidi has faced technical challenges.

  • Phones that are compatible with Ushahidi’s Front Line SMS software are not easy to find in Madagascar. SMS is important because it does not require internet connection.
  • Many mobile phone stores were closed during the unrest.
  • Slow internet connections mean it can take up to 15 minutes to reach the Udahishi platform.

I feel we must be wary of the role these technologies play in journalism, especially when there is inter-conflict or government tension involved. They could become a tool to rock the political boat for people who want to legitimise their own causes. But then cyber-activism is another role altogether that has an important part to play in democratic governance.

Ushahidi is a great platform for an island like Madagascar where environmental disasters and cyclones are recurrences that would not see the light of day in the mainstream headlines because of their unsexy and frequent nature. There are also great possibilities when used alongside networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, providing there is appropriate moderation.

But then who monitors the moderators?

Celebrities and aid: Will hunger strike hard enough?

6 May

Hollywood actor Mia Farrow is now in the tenth day of her hunger strike in protest for the refugees of Darfur, whose lives have been put at risk by the Sudanese government through Omar al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid agencies from the region, including Oxfam UK and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Hunger strikes aren’t a new form of protest against government regimes and have been employed by Mahatma Gandhi to the suffragettes.

But to what extent will Farrow’s efforts along with celebrity status help in raising awareness for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?

So far, 75 people have signed up on her website Mia to join her fast. An ambassador for Unicef, she has been a high profile activist for Darfur since 2005.

Scepticism is inevitable.

Khaled al-Mubarak at the Sudanese embassy in London told the Guardian: “She is a good actress and a good human being, but as a politician she is only a beginner. She is like George Clooney, who has also got involved in the Darfur question. He is good looking but ignorant. She is ignorant too.”



Indeed, Farrow herself is also aware that her attempts may be in vain. She told reporters before she began:

“I’m not presuming anybody will care whether I starve to death or whether I go on a long hunger strike or what. But it’s a personal matter.”

With the now ubiquitous role of of the western celebrity ever more frequent in aid, their efficacy and even motives are under scrutiny… Whose profile are they trying to raise – the country in crisis or their own? Their faces are icons of modernisation – why not get global recognition with a deep and meaningful reality check thrown in.. adopt a cute black kid while at it?

In a London conference in February, Professor John Street, who dubs it ‘charitainment’, quoted the Washington Post, which seriously reported in coverage of Angelina Jolie in Darfur that she was ‘monitoring the crisis’ there.

The western media has to put its hands up when it comes to covering development issues from a charitainment angle. Journalist, Ann McFerran said in London that whilst getting “privileged access” to celebrities, she is better equipped to get an unsexy issue such as infant mortality in Sierra Leone into the press if David Beckham was on board.

Of course you’ll raise your profile as a celeb getting involved in aid, but what harm can that do if it is getting an issue in the mainstream media? Is ‘branding’ today’s NGO the way forward?

MoyoMSF’s Kris Torgeson said the water crisis in Angola would “never have got half an hour on MTV” if it wern’t for rapper Jay-Z involved.

But, Zambian economist and author of the controversial Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, says it’s all ‘glamour aid’:

 “Long, long lines of people [in Africa] have stood in the sun to vote for a president who is effectively impotent because of donors or because glamour aid has decided to speak on behalf of a continent.

How would British people feel if tomorrow Michael Jackson started telling them how they should get out of the housing crisis?”

Here she speaks at the Carnegie Council:

The stark contrast of a pampered celebrity stood in a sea of black faces paints a dire picture of Africa. Moyo says there should me more emphasis on the positive.

Meanwhile, Farrow toils on..

You can listen to the full LSE conference featuring John Street, Ann McFerran and MSF here: Celebrities and aid: Humanitarians or just another fad?

One Laptop per Child – one big waste of time?

29 Apr

one laptop per child cartoonThe One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative was geared at children in “developing countries” when it was introduced in 2005 as the $100 Laptop. Its key design features were that it required little power and was enclosed to prevent water, sand or dirt damage also giving it a toy-like feel so not to appear too intimidating to a child who has never come across a computer before.

It has made us question what place technology has in global development efforts. Four years on, environmental historian Benjamin Cohen points out some of the ‘snags’ of the $100 laptop, which include:

  • Issues with actual cost (the $100 laptop is no longer called that, because it costs $200?)
  • Political and governmental resistance from countries to whom OLPC seeks to send the laptops. (In two cases, Nigeria and Brazil had been seeking local laptops, not imported, but other countries have presented other kinds of resistance.)
  • Businesses, such as Intel, who would like to make their own inexpensive laptop (the Intel classmate)
  • Grumblings from consumers of wealthy nations (“we want a cheap laptop too!”)
  • Education (what value are laptops when you don’t have pencils? or a teacher?)
  • Countries who have ordered in volume have experienced some measure of delays getting the devices.


See Cohen’s follow-up here.

But India placed an order this week for 250,000 of the OLPC machines for distribution to around 1,500 schools – a U-turn decision after the Indian government publicly rejected it OLPC as “paedagogically suspect” back in 2006, when the Education Secretary, Sudeep Banerjee, wrote:

“We cannot visualize a situation for decades when we can go beyond the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.”

Is this a move that reinforces the notion that India is at the forefront of the globalisation process? Either way it will give the boost that OLPC needs, who has lost key members through resignation and been forced to cut staff.

Twitter and malaria bednets

20 Apr

The online world is fast becoming a platform for cyber activism – but can you make a difference in just 140 characters?

My last post looked at NGOs using Twitter. During the last week, the social networking site became the latest tool to raise awareness for malaria, when American actor, Ashton Kutcher, challenged the CNN network to a race to be the first to get a million followers, where the winner would donate mosquito bednets in awareness of the near approaching World Malaria Day on 25th April.

Kutcher had been posting about malaria on his Twitter feed in the run up to the race which he narrowly won.

“I just think its amazing that 1 voice can now be as powerful at an entire media network. thank you twitter!” (7:06 PM Apr 13th from web)

But this is the guy also Tweets about his wife’s behind.

The point Kutcher was trying to make, was that the power of social networking like Twitter can potentially make you as influencial as an entire media network…if you’re a high profile celebrity that is.

What was actually achieved? It wasn’t each follower that paid for the bednets, and how many of his followers actually clicked on any of the preachy malaria website links he Tweeted?

The Malaria Policy Centre thanked his efforts, but one blogger accused Kutcher for using Twitter to massage his ego.

“What you did succeed in doing is placing the focus on the wrong aspect of Twitter. Now every celeb would think ‘hey I’m more popular than Ashton, I could totally go beyond 1M.’ You’ll be lying if you say you’ll be reading each and every post from your 1M followers — just not physically possible.

Twitter’s value to me has always been the information shared from each contact. What you did succeed in doing is putting old media Hollywood thinking into Twitter, ie the bigger the audience you have, the better.”

Sure, social networking is an important media tool for development that cannot be ignored  – but through the front of  a celebrity it makes it very difficult to measure its realistic impact.

Sex education software in Nigeria

4 Apr

Learning About Living (LAL) is a new media project in Nigerian schools helping young people to combat ignorance on issues around sexual health, HIV and AIDS, maternal morbidity and gender violence, based on the Nigerian Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education (FLHE) curriculum. It has been running for over two years now.

Funding for the Learning about Living pilot is mainly from the West: Oxfam Novib, Netherlands, MacArthur Foundation USA, Butterfly Works and Finalist IT Group, Netherlands so there is likely to be an element of Western influence over the content of the software (which is made to be compatible with Intel classmate laptops and also the One Laptop per Child device.

The idea behind it is that young characters on the computer screen become the ‘peer educators’ in classrooms that you then discuss in class exercises. 

Sensitive topics

One of the main reasons such a learning tool is needed in Nigerian schools is because young people and parents find it difficult to talk about sexual topics openly in Nigerian culture. This could potentially lead to generations of miseducation regarding sexually transmitted infections.

Professor Bene Madunago of the Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) which is also in collaboration with LAL said that even teachers themselves were not comfortable with talking about subjects such as HIV/AIDs.

The programme follows Nigerian culture and it initiates discussions about sex, but it is important that it only accompanies teaching rather than replaces it, as not talking about sexual relationships face-to-face may become the norm and could be a dangerous thing if health education on sensitive subjects was solely dependent on computers that replace human contact.


It is a largely decontralised approach that can seem less orderly to an authoritarian-style teacher for example. so they have to adapt as well as the students.

LAL explores myths

The problem with these programmes is that student assessment and feedback can be fairly limited and bandwidth limitations mean you cannot necessarily develop them any further.

Apart from a short quiz after every section of information, there is not actually a way of monitoring whether students are taking any of the information in.

I went through one of the lessons online on HIV and AIDs. In effect it did feel like I was reading a health leaflet but with some colourful images accompanied, but information was very simple and clear. It also promotes abstinence which can be dangerous if ‘fidelity’ is the only thing you’re relying on for STI prevention, however it does offer advice for young people who don’t choose abstinence.

The interactive test is interesting as it explores the myths surrounding HIV as well as the facts – have a go here.

On the whole it also allows teenagers to ask questions online, discretly which they would never have done out loud in the classroom. The online service has had a good response indicating the need for it. Perhaps there is a need for more consultation with young people and parents to establish their information needs.

Sustainability in Katine

24 Mar

Sustainability is an important issue in international development journalism and one which has been the issue of sceptics of the Guardian’s Katine project. Freelance journalist Eliza Anyangwe questioned whether, despite, being exciting and able to make a difference, a short-term project like this £2.5m initiative is actually a good idea…

“That per capita investment would produce higher agricultural yields, better healthcare, more enrolments in school and better rural governance anywhere in the world. But what happens in the years after the project? Who will be able to afford the high-yield seeds and who will provide books for schools or train teachers? What becomes of the villagers of Katine then?

It makes me wonder if Katine is an example of recklessness or a good project that shares a universal characteristic with other development projects: they tend to leave a bitter aftertaste.”

She suggests “short-sightedness” in development means that issues, such as education and health, will not get the long-term attention they require. She also raised concerns that those trained by the project will move to the Uganda capital, Kampala.

One of my previous posts looked at some of the problems the Guardian faced, especially in working with NGO Amref. Based on that, anything more than three years would seem quite challenging. Project Katine must build foundations that won’t crumble once the project is over.

It depends whether you think you’re being negative when criticising the project. Once the three-years are over you can fear that the “positive results of these projects will soon erode” or can think that some changes are inevitable in a region like Katine, and the positive has not eroded – but is just evolving to suit the needs of that area. The end of the project doesn’t necessarily mean fail.

But Katine may have helped to change attitudes, but without the funding, Anyangwe does have a point.

Read the full piece in the Katine Chronicles Blog.