Kubatana.net ~ an online community of Zimbabwean activists

Archive for January, 2010

A piece of earth called called Zimbabwe

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Thursday, January 28th, 2010 by Bev Clark

Back in 2006 Kubatana featured the art of Josiah Bob Taundi, a Zimbabwean interested in depicting everyday life in our country and how politics affects how we live our lives.

Just recently Josiah launched his own online gallery which we enourage you to visit. See more here.

Josiah describes himself as:

a self-taught artist from a piece of earth called called Zimbabwe, south of Africa. I’m inspired by people in their different circumstances. They could be happy, sad or confused. I love colour. Africa is a land of living colour. But I try to be as true and realistic as possible. I don’t paint nice pictures to solely please the eye of the beholder. My motivation to paint is to communicate an important message. It may social, political or economic. I’m a commentator and encourage debate around real issues affecting the human condition. I paint intensely after long hiatuses.

Legitimised coups in modern 21st century Africa

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Thursday, January 28th, 2010 by Bev Clark

John Mutumburanzou wrote to Kubatana recently, sharing his views on GNUs, and the new way of doing politics in Africa:

The obsession and deliberate automated habit by contemporary statesman, political brokers and mediators buttressed by multilateral institutions like SADC, AU and the UN to form coalition governments (also erroneously referred to as Unity Government or Government of National Unity) in each and every troubled state in Africa is astonishing and mind boggling to say the least.

Since the formation of the coalition government in Kenya it seems the echoes of the chorus are reverberating throughout Africa.  First, it shows that Africa direly lacks the statesmen of the yesteryears who had the guts and courage to speak out against their fellow African brothers who are fond of abusing power and who trample on citizen rights willy-nilly.

Secondly, the yesteryear authority of such multilateral institutions is fast eroding and lost into abysmal oblivion. Put plainly, their lack of authority gives credence to the assertion that international law is an ass. It is not an understatement that a Chief’s Dare in traditional Africa is better that a club of expensively dressed men and women acting on behalf of and for SADC, AU or UN and more so masquerading as mediators.

There seems to be a sudden irresistible and invigorated rise, on the political horizons of Africa, of a form of system of governance which is fast substituting elections as a way of coming up with and legitimising governments in Africa. The electorate, it seems, do not matter any more in as far as deciding who is to lead them. Leaders of troubled and so called hot spots in Africa are chosen, on behalf of and for the electorate in those respective states, in posh hotels and flamboyant mansions, more often than not, situated miles away from the respective states and the majority of the citizenry.

Indeed, coalition governments brought about through this political methodology are tantamount to legitimised coups in modern 21st century Africa. The coalition governments formed in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and more to come are in the political intensive care unit. The lack of democratic culture and egregious intolerance in modern African society continues to haunt such systems of governments with consequences horrendous and too ghastly to contemplate. At most in these political arrangements, the principals to the governments just buckle to immense international pressure and signed the deal without a real commitment to make it work leading to festering tensions and acrimony that will gnaw the government and in the process, kill it softly.

Kicking out paternalism

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Thursday, January 28th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

I have never been too fond of radical feminism or any form of extremism for that matter; finding it to be an aggressive, usually narrow and unhelpful approach to conflict resolution.

Radicalism is often reactionary, manifesting as a reaction to some undesired reality and is usually the preserve of those who feel they have something to defend against all costs and something to fight for against whatever odds.

As an activist, I have found that radicalism has its place, its use and its benefits in pursuing the elusive goal of attaining social justice for womankind.

Some weeks back, I read with glee, that Emilia Muchawa and a group of women had broken into song and dance protesting the negligible female representation in the constitution-making process’s committees and even had the gumption to threaten to derail the process altogether.

Now I reckon there are those who found such conduct distasteful, extreme and even uncalled for – but every once in a while, it is necessary for discontent to erupt into something more than passive resistance.

I do not know whether these women intended to make such a vocal display of their displeasure but I would like to think it was neither premeditated nor meant as a gesture of disrespect for the process – I’d like to think it was a spontaneous and extreme reaction to long suppressed frustrations that women have felt at having to be side-lined time and again in critical decision-making processes.

And I daresay, no one can argue that women’s grievances are legitimate and their frustration a natural consequence of ineffectual words never put to practice as our country has a great gender policy on paper and absolutely nothing to back it up on the ground.

The transition from theoretical gender policy frameworks to the implementation and practice of the same has yet to manifest; and while one can appreciate that it is not easy to reverse the thinking of years and that gender equity will be a process – one expects to see a degree of commitment towards living up to the words enshrined in the treaties, legislative instruments and laws which Zimbabwe has signed, ratified and enacted.

From the CEDAW to the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, and other treaties focusing on the need for gender parity, Zimbabwe has made a commitment on paper that is yet to manifest in actuality; so with the imminent crafting of a new Constitution, women have every right to insist – no – to demand equal representation.

Article VI of the Global Political Agreement having stated without equivocation that the parties are, “Mindful of the need to ensure that the new Constitution deepens our democratic values and principles and the protection of the equality of all citizens, particularly the enhancement of full citizenship and equality of women,” it is only natural that a deviation from these noble goals be met with resistance, and if need be, outright mutiny.

However, cognisance must be taken of the fact that men folk have deeply internalised cultural values and have often related to women on a paternalistic level – an unfortunate consequence of being born and raised in a patriarchal society.

Having said this, I found the gesture made by Emilia Muchawa and the other women present at that gathering to be a definitive act of kicking paternalism to the curb.

Emphatically, Zimbabwean women are making a statement they have no use for paternalistic gestures; men do not ever need to make decisions (regardless of how well-meaning the intention) on behalf of women.

We can and we will speak for ourselves.

In this context, my view is that paternalism is premised on two considerations; the first being that men adopt a benevolent and ‘fatherly’ attitude towards women and by assuming this attitude they (men) then make decisions ostensibly meant to benefit women without the inclusion, consent or will of the women themselves.

So perhaps, it was with good intent that these men gathered, figuring that they would ‘know what was best for women’ and go ahead with the business of crafting the constitution without the permission, participation or involvement of women.

Inexorably, the women’s movement in this country has over the years consistently challenged and resisted patriarchal and paternalistic attitudes – suffice to say, the constitution-making process presents the most volatile battlefront yet.

Free Kiswahili synthetic voice for Freedom Fone a possibility

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Friday, January 15th, 2010 by Brenda Burrell

Freedom Fone’s ability to fulfill it’s promise as a must have tool for bridging the digital divide has yet to be determined. Millions of poor people have access to mobile phones, but with tariffs as high as they are in countries like Zimbabwe, experimentation in this field is still costly. And of course, for our project these are early days. The development team is still in the process of creating the variety of features that will distinguish Freedom Fone from the technically intimidating (to ordinary folk) IVR products like FreePBX, Trixbox and PBX in a Flash.

One of the recalibrations for me has been a growing appreciation of the relevance of text-to-speech synthetic voices for our platform. This isn’t news to our Project Architect, Alberto Escudero Pascual. He’s been convinced of its relevance from the start. In fact, in order to build an interactive online demo for Freedom Fone he integrated a commercial synthetic voice from Cepstral called Allison as a quick option for building and testing a voice menu.

As you can imagine, English speaking Allison, as good as she sounds given she’s synthetic, is not an ideal voice for enunciating other languages.

As a project located in Africa we are keen to develop/acquire free synthetic voices for some of the continent’s many languages and include them with the Freedom Fone software. As an open source project I hope that we can attract the contribution of free synthetic voices for many of the world’s languages over time.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with Etienne Barnard at Meraka Institute in Pretoria, South Africa. To my delight he indicated that work already done in Kenya on text-to-speech for Kiswahili by a team led by Dr Mucemi Gakuru at the University of Nairobi some years ago, might be updated and made available in time for our July release of Freedom Fone version 2.

In recognition of the competitive mobile phone tariffs prevailing in east Africa and the willingness of organisations there to experiment with information on demand voice services, we will create our first localisation of the Freedom Fone GUI for Kiswahili in February 2010. The possibility of including a free synthetic voice for this audience is exciting.

So why this interest in synthetic voice? Doesn’t this just mean a horrible robotic sounding Kiswahili voice? Obviously original audio files with perfect inflection are the first choice, but not all information requires the effort associated with recording audio files. Freedom Fone helps with the automatic conversion of audio files for voice menus, and it will be improved over time to make it as easy as possible to create audio files using a basic microphone attached to a computer. Still, it would be a lot quicker to automatically convey information received/produced in text format, like product prices, weather reports, breaking news using text-to-speech.

And … not all synthetic voice sounds dreadful. Build and test your own voice menu in English using Allison and our online demo. Make it the default audio menu and call in to listen for free using Skype. To do this you will need to add Skypiax4 as a Skype contact. Let us know what you think of the experience!

Molo and Kubatana’s partnership helps put information in the hands of Zimbabweans

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Thursday, January 14th, 2010 by Brenda Burrell

Kubatana, a Zimbabwean non-profit organisation committed to democratising access to information, was awarded a Knight News Challenge grant in May 2008 for its Freedom Fone software development project. The Freedom Fone project aspires to help civic organisations extend their information in an audio format to mobile phone users.

In Zimbabwe the mass media is monopolised by an entrenched and unpopular government. There are no licensed radio or television stations outside the direct control of the government. There are no community radio stations. There are no independent daily newspapers. Voice over Internet (VoIP) has not been legalised and wireless networking is tightly regulated. Working in this environment Kubatana realised the importance of leveraging the growing access to mobile telephony by people across income and interest groups. Frustrated by the limitations of SMS, Kubatana investigated the potential for manipulating call-in voice menus to convey frequently updated rather than static information. The primary objective was to add to the information outreach capacity of organisations in the non-profit sector by providing them with easy to install and use software to deliver their information, in languages of their choice, to phone users in the general public. Since interactive voice menu (IVR) systems incorporate voice mail or ‘leave-a-message’ functionality Kubatana also recognised the potential for developing rich two-way communications with communities and for facilitating citizen journalism.

With the Knight News Challenge award, we have been able to commission the redevelopment of our platform to incorporate lessons learnt to-date and the latest advancements in open source telephony development.

Since software development is an involved process, Kubatana was keen to work with an interim solution to facilitate experimentation with IVR in Zimbabwe whilst full-scale development progressed. We investigated commercial IVR providers in South Africa and were delighted to find a responsive company in Pretoria: Molo Innovation. Charl Barnard, a director in the company, was very interested in the innovative ideas we had for extending the use of IVR into the non-profit and development sectors. Importantly, he was prepared to assist us at heavily subsidised rates with quickly re-gigging an existing Asterisk-based product for our interim use.

The value of Molo’s support cannot be measured in dollar terms – it goes well beyond that. Our expedited productivity gave birth to an innovation called ‘Inzwa’ which means ‘to listen’ in the vernacular. For the first time in many years in Zimbabwe, the general public were able to call-in, at their convenience, and access non-state controlled audio information via their phones.

Our Inzwa experience enabled us to quickly and constructively feed into the planning and development of the Freedom Fone platform as well as test the waters in Zimbabwe and start to assess local interest in phoning in for information. It gave us hands on experience and the ability to speak with greater conviction about the potential of Freedom Fone as a useful product; an appreciation of the skills and resources needed to run an information on demand audio service and allowed us to share a real-life deployment with others interested in doing something similar.

And Zimbabwe is just the start! A deployment partner, Farm Radio International, has been keen for some time to experiment with IVR as a support for and extension of their community radio programming for small-scale poultry farmers. They installed our interim version for training and pilot purposes in Tanzania and Ghana in November 2009.

Commercial support to non-profit initiatives can have far-reaching and rewarding results and we would encourage others to follow in Molo’s socially responsible footsteps.

Coming and going

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Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 by Bev Clark

Do yourself a favour and visit Poetry International to read some great poetry from around the world. The current  featured Zimbabwean poet is Freedom T.V. Nyamubaya. Editor Irene Staunton introduces her as “a rural development activist, farmer, dancer and writer who was born in Uzumba. Cutting short her secondary school education in 1975, she left to join the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army in Mozambique where she achieved the rank of Female Field Operation Commander, later being elected Secretary for Education in the first ZANU Women’s League conference in 1979.”

Here is one of Freedom T.V. Nyamubaya’s poems from 2009.

Coming and Going

In Zimbabwe rain is an event
Like the sighting of a new moon
In the fasting month of Ramadan
The butterflies display a short-lived beauty
Before they become the sparrow’s festive dish
Beautiful angels in a distant dream
Of babies in the reeds and life after death.

There are more prophets of doom
Than angels from Heaven
Most rivers are silted
With fertilisers and asbestos powder

From the higher-ranking scientific politicians
Whose power to stop development
Can be measured in kilogrammes of pain
No gatecrashers at Heroes Acre please!
You have to have been mafia to qualify