Blogging For Others
Brian Schartz and I are embarking on a new project, under the auspices of the Committee to Protect Bloggers. It’s called Blogswana and it is a project to increase HIV/AIDS education in the African country of Botswana through blogging.
In it, I suggested that Global Voices develop a program in each country that would send people out to blog for people who could not do it themselves (a bit like the approach taken by Microsoft’s Channel 9). In other words, they would create a blog for someone, say a farmer in a remote village who had neither the money for the hardware, nor the expertise, nor perhaps the time or literacy, to blog himself, or to an urban prostitute, or a nurse in an AIDS hospice, or a politician, or a minister. They would go out, at least once a month, interview this person, maybe take photos, video or audio, return to their computer and blog for this person. They would take the comments and questions out to the person the next time they went out.
Blogswana is an effort to practice what we preach. The one-year pilot project will work with a group of about 20 college students from one of the major universities, and provide them with blogging and journalism expertise and guidance. They would commit to a year of “blogging for others.” Each student participant would start their own blog, as well as a blog for their “partner” (the person for whom they will blog). Each partner would be someone who has been effected in some way by the AIDS virus.
The 20 pairs of blogs would be linked to a common blog. The latest post from each of the non-student blogs would be funneled to the Blogswana blog. If the project bore fruit, it could be rapidly scaled up, using students at universities around the continent and world.
The idea is to bring voices from the far side of the digital divide into the global conversation and to rehumanize AIDS in a time where the west has seen AIDS-related mortality decline. By blogging about a person first, the disease will be seen again, we hope, in terms of its human context. AIDS in Africa is, for many in the west, a combination of statistics and abstract tragedy.
Blogswana aims to take blogging beyond itself, beyond what can oftentimes seem like an indulgence. It also provides a platform to teach the student bloggers about communications technologies, about journalism, writing, photography, videography and radio. They would learn from us, we from them, and the bloggers from their partners and from each other.
Botswana is among the countries hardest hit by AIDS. At one time among the most robust economies in Africa, Botswana had been one of Africa’s greatest successes: rich in mineral deposits, gifted with enlightened leadership, and blessed with an unbroken peace since gaining independence in 1966. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, infection estimates running from one in three Batswana to two in five, is having a devastating effect on Botswana’s economic gains.
In response to this epidemic the Government of Botswana has collaborated with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Merck Company Foundation/Merck & Co., Inc., to form The African Comprehensive HIV/AIDS Partnership (ACHAP). ACHAP, established in July 2000, works to decrease HIV incidence and increase the rate of diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
ACHAP asks, “How (could) an epidemic of such alarming proportions develop?”
Factors exacerbating the spread of HIV/AIDS in Botswana include alcohol abuse, poverty, the high prevalence of specific STIs, a high proportion of single parents, and widespread early parentage. Officials have also identified four key determinants: the low-social standing of women in Botswana society; societal fears of HIV/AIDS and the stigmatization of infected individuals; the mobility of Botswana’s population; and Botswana’s rapid urbanization, which has undermined traditional mechanisms for controlling social and sexual behavior and has exacerbated sexual exploitation of the poor.
I lived in Mahalapye, Botswana from 1985 to 1987 and was aware (to some degree) of these same exacerbating factors and determinants. I recall initial efforts to increase HIV/AIDS awareness. One such effort was fleet of jeeps, AIDS posters on all four sides, roaming through the villages with loudspeakers announcing in Setswana that a new disease was at hand. I found this to be blunt but effective. People were talking about AIDS. Fellow Peace Corps volunteers were requesting more condoms from the medical office in Gabarone than they could possibly use and handing them out to fellow teachers. I applauded these efforts and believe there are more than a few people who did not become infected because of them. I also applaud the continuing efforts of ACHAP and partners to both prevent and treat HIV/AIDS infection.
There has been some skepticism regarding public education and awareness campaigns; a program officer in Serowe noted that “This country has been bombarded with HIV messages, but there hasn’t been a change in behaviour.” Some skepticism is to be expected where the aforementioned exacerbating factors and determinants are so strong and the infection incidence is so high. It is becoming evident that ACHAP’s goal of an AIDS-Free Generation is indeed taking longer than one generation to come about.
Our intent with Blogswana is to bring voices from the far side of the digital divide into the national (Botswanan), continental (Africa) and global conversation about the disease. But not just about the disease. People are not merely vectors.
It is our desire to create a rich, interesting site about the daily lives of Batswana. The public awareness and education campaigns are doing a great deal to make this problem a part of the national consciousness. Organizations such as the Botswana Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (BONEPWA) are working to reduce discrimination against and the stigma attached to people living with aids. We would like to add to the public awareness and hopefully to help reduce the stigmatization of infected individuals.
My experience with Tswana culture leads me to believe that an approach that combined honesty with discretion could be quite effective. There are some things that are discussed in Tswana culture with a great deal of circumspection. For example, nobody ‘dies’ in Botwsana but people do ‘pass’. We want to raise public awareness discretely, we want risky behavior, decision to get tested, living with HIV/AIDS, etc. to be a part of these blogs but only insomuch as they relate to an individual with other concerns. We want the discrete language that the ordinary Batswana uses to be used in these blogs.
Being confronted with a world in which you either have it or you don’t (or you don’t know) must feel overwhelming to some people. We would like to create a blog site in which the reader is informed, not bludgeoned. We would like the blogs to be about the ordinary men and women of Botswana with the same concerns, hopes and dreams as the viewer. Some of these concerns will undoubtedly have to do with HIV/AIDS, but such concerns will not make up the entirety of the blogs. Reading about a sympathetic individual who is wrestling with an AIDS related issue may help the reader to come to terms with a similar issue themselves.
There is a saying in Setswana that I have adopted as part of my life. “Boiteko ke boikone.” Trying is success. I believe that our project could be part of the solution to this crisis that plagues Botswana. I believe that our efforts will, at the very least, get our 20 bloggers to consider more fully the HIV/AIDS problem in Botswana and their attitudes towards it.
We are currently writing a grant for the project, which will be administered under the aegis of the non-profit Committee to Protect Bloggers. If you wish to contribute cash or encouragement, you can reach us at blogswana[at]yahoo[dot]com. You can also contribute via the PayPal button on the Committee’s site.
Mark Glaser was good enough to mention us on PBS’s MediaShift blog.
Others who’ve given their two cents include Neha in the U.K., Antony in Australia and Carolyn at Foreign Policy’s blog. We’re deeply appreciative of everyone’s support and interest right out of the gate.
Cross-posted from the Committee to Protect Bloggers