1. How and why did you get started blogging about Africa and why the title 'Jewels in the Jungle'?
I have had a deep interest in the continent and people of Africa for much of my adult life since my own family heritage is so closely linked to the history of Africans in the New World (the Americas) starting around the beginning of the 18th Century. ‘Jewels in the Jungle’ was launched back in May of 2004 when the blogosphere was still relatively small (approximately 7 million blogs vs. the 100 million+ blogs worldwide today).
After watching the rapid development and growth of online publishing tools and blog authors from a technology point of view since 2001-2002, I felt that using a weblog to share information and news online about Africa with people around the globe was an idea worth pursuing. When I started ‘Jewels’ I didn’t have the slightest idea that it would gain popularity and a global readership of more than 90,000 visitors.
Re: the blog title ‘Jewels in the Jungle’
Sort of catchy, ain’t it? Love it myself___ I need to get the name trademarked or something. The title gets its name from a phrase that I used to describe a project organized by a photographer friend in Germany. My friend, Susanne Behnke, decided one autumn day in 2002 that she was going to do something to “help out the poor, helpless orphan children of Uganda”. When she broke the news to me about her project idea for Ugandan children I was filled with dread that this was going to turn out to be a nightmare. Susanne, a professional photographer and high school teacher, is a real go-getter with a big heart for young people. Susanne had never traveled to the African continent but she has visited several countries in Europe and North America. Somehow she was able to pull it off despite the many adventures encountered along the way both in Uganda and here in Germany.
Working together with her friends in Uganda and organizations and companies in Germany Susanne managed to plan, organize, and launch a project to build new schoolrooms for children of the Iganga District (near Lake Victoria and Jinja). The project team also awarded thirty scholarships to young schoolchildren to help them pay their school fees for one year. Jewelry design students from one of Germany’s best known art & design academies (the Pforzheim School of Design) donated their time and work in support of the project. Auctions for the sale of handmade designer jewelry created specifically for this project were held at three locations in Germany. Money collected from these auctions plus generous private donations was used to begin construction on new school classrooms in Iganga District, Uganda. Hence the story of the origin of my blog title ‘Jewels in the Jungle’.
Note: I’ve uploaded photos from the project to my Flickr.com portfolio. Sotheby’s Amsterdam used a similar concept in 2007 for the ‘Jewels for the Jungle’ auction to help raise money for the World Wildlife Fund.
2. To what extent do you think that blogs, social networks, and other online publishing and collaboration tools can contribute to Africa's development?
I feel that blog authors coming from the global pool of private citizens, citizen journalists, news and media professionals, educators and scholars, students and so forth have already contributed a great deal to Africa’s development, especially over the last 4 to 5 years. I haven’t spent much time investigating social networks and online forums so I cannot speak about their impact on Africa’s development.
There is more information about Africa, much of it written and produced by Africans, available to the global public today than at anytime in world history. The simple, easy-to-use technologies behind online publishing tools i.e. Blogger, Wordpress, and Typepad combined with the power of blog search engines and blog aggregators has helped to make it possible for millions of people to participate in the World Live Web, the live or near real-time global online communications and collaboration around a variety of news events and issues. Blogs in combination with the array of online communication and collaboration tools and platforms that make up what some refer to as Web 2.0 technologies has helped the world to understand that “Africa is in the House!” Africa and Africans are an integral part of the global community and the young people of Africa today refuse to be ignored and left behind.
Users of these new web-based applications are transforming how local, national, and international news is gathered, analyzed, and delivered. Leading international and national news media companies haves started using blogs and reader-generated content on their websites. It is standard practice for the best online news sites to offer reader feedback to editorials and feature articles in the form of comment tools. What is also interesting to watch is the growing impact that blog authors and citizen journalists (and their readers) are having on national politics and elections around the world. This is happening from the U.S.A. to Russia, from Egypt to Ecuador, South Africa to South Korea___ blog authors and their readers are making a significant contribution to news coverage worldwide as well as having an impact on politics and social issues. Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of PressThink, goes into more detail about this subject in his August 2007 editorial for the LA Times ‘The Journalism that Bloggers Actually Do’ .
Africa’s bloggers and people around the world who write and report on Africa via blogs and citizen-generated news sites are having an effect on how heads of state, political figures, business leaders, and public officials operate. It is especially difficult these days for many of Africa’s longstanding despots and dictators and thieves of the public wealth (corrupt officials) because they can no longer hide their dirty deeds and deplorable actions from an enquiring world. Some regimes continue to intimidate and persecute journalists, editors, and publishers by keeping a tight stranglehold on a free press and free speech___ but these leaders can no longer easily control the growing sources of reliable information or the delivery channels for news. News today can be delivered from anywhere___ the Internet, mobile phones, miniature storage devices, video cameras, you name it.
This is true not only for Africa but for leaders in regions and countries around the globe. Case in point: Look east, look east to China and the difficulties that the government in Beijing is having with outraged journalists over press freedoms and Internet access. Bloggers were the ones to break the story about The Great Firewall of China first, long before the world’s press and media professionals caught on.
Bloggers are everywhere and just about anyone with access to a computer and a reliable Internet connection, an ability to communicate well through the written word or voice (audio) or imagery (photos, video, graphics), combined with credibility and some authority on a given subject can become a blogger with a worldwide audience.
From the election turmoil in Nigeria and Kenya to the exposure of the despotic rule of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and murderous rule of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan to the headquarters of the African Union and the United Nations, bloggers are having an impact on the way we live and the choices of information that we consume daily.
3. As an American living abroad for many years (Europe), what has been your experience with Africans in the Diaspora?
One of the most vivid images of Europe that will remain in my mind forever will be the day in 1986 that I saw three young African men sitting on a dock in a small harbor town in northern Germany looking out across the North Sea. These were not the first black Africans that I had encountered in Europe or Germany but for me they defined the plight of so many African immigrants to Europe that I have met in the closing decade of the 20th Century and right up to this very day.
At the time I was working for an aerospace engineering firm that had defense contracts with the German government to assist the German Luftwaffe and Marine. My assignment was to support German scientists, naval officers and technical staff on a naval air station at the ass-end of the world. Here in the middle of nowhere, at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries whose armies were amassed on the East German border just a stone’s throw away were these African ‘asylum seekers’. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
To make a long story short, I soon befriended these young men and shared in many great conversations about Africa and America and Europe until my departure from the area about 4 years later. I still have many fond memories of those days and I miss them dearly, I really do. Unfortunately I no longer have contact to any of those young Africans from that time but I have learned that one of them returned to Ghana and is today a successful Internet radio entrepreneur. I would like to think that our heated discussions and debates about all kinds of subjects combined with my encouragement to maintain a level of self-respect and demand respect from others, to always work hard to improve oneself through education and learning inside and outside of a classroom, that these shared experiences had a positive effect on their lives and their futures.
Of course not all Africans that I have met in Europe have been asylum seekers or economic refugees. Many of my African friends and acquaintances came to West or East Germany (GDR) on academic scholarships back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Over the years I have had the privilege to know a number of young African students, professionals, and just ordinary people from every corner of the African continent who live and work in Germany. These Africans are integrated into European society to the extent that their communities and co-workers will accept them. Based upon my own observations and personal experiences the better educated and skilled African Diaspora in Germany is building a solid foundation for themselves and their families. They are ‘paving the way’ and breaking the ice of racial discrimination, prejudice, and fear to open up new career opportunities for the educated and skilled African people who will follow.
It is evident that immigrants and economic refugees who are arriving in Europe today from Africa and around the globe without a good education and modern job skills are upsetting the apple cart, causing resentment and fear within traditional European society and even within some elite African-European circles. A report released by the German Economics Ministry in August 2007 showed that Germany was suffering from an acute skilled labor shortage costing the economy more than €20 billion Euro per year. A 2008 report by the Washington DC-based Center for Transatlantic Relations (John Hopkins University SAIS) showed that the “vast majority of foreign migrants settling in the EU are poorly qualified ( 85%)…” where skilled foreign workers make up about 55% of the U.S. foreign labor market compared to only 5% in Europe. When it comes to the education and skills needed to fill highly-skilled positions in the medical, technology, and services professions, foreign workers make up less than 1% of the entire labor market across the 27-member European Union. This acute skilled labor shortage is cause for some EU parliamentarians to consider instituting an EU Blue Card program to fill the growing labor gaps in EU member countries.
This acute skilled labor shortage combined with fears over terrorism from abroad, increased illegal immigration and other woes does not bode well for the 10’s of thousands of unskilled immigrants from African countries who have been fleeing poverty on the continent for a better life in Europe. It will be interesting to see what impact these challenges will have on a growing African Diaspora in Europe over the next decade or two.
The path to better job opportunities and acceptance and integration of Africans into European society will be a long and hard fought road, not unlike the problems faced by African-Americans and many other ethnic groups in the United States, Canada, and throughout the Americas over the past few hundred years. It has already taken nearly two millennia for Africans from Saharan and sub-Saharan counties to be accepted as an integral part of European history, culture and society. Let us hope that it doesn’t take much longer because time is running out.
[Bill blogs @ Jewels in the Jungle]