Why internet rights matter for Africa(ns)

How Google and I are raising a child

When I found myself suddenly having to care for and look after my new born child alone, I panicked. I panicked because I had never done this before and the ten minute tutorial on washing and feeding my infant that the nurse gave me at the hospital was lacking in many ways. I had questions, so many questions, but she didn’t have time. I was a woman, as far as she was concerned and therefore I should be able to instinctively know how to care for and love my child. But I didn’t. I went home with my child petrified that I would do something wrong. I’ve never believed that our ability as women to have children then automatically makes us able and active mothers.

In a month or so, my child started showing signs of eczema. A rash developed on my child’s face and slowly started spreading all over his little body. I had suffered with eczema for all my childhood and young adulthood and it was terrible. It was hard and I certainly didn’t want that for my child. I took my child to a dermatologist who I knew would prescribe corticosteroids which are bad for the general health of any child or adult. So I decided to try alternative, natural remedies for my child’s eczema and Google came to my rescue. I researched passionately what natural remedies had been tried, I joined chat rooms with mothers who had babies with eczema, I signed up for newsletters online, I watched YouTube videos. And I found out, by a process of elimination, that wheat and gluten were what triggered my child’s eczema attacks. I built a thick binder, and ordered books that I had found online at my local bookstore. I even tried a remedy that Kate Winslet swore worked for her child who had eczema earlier in life. I became a self-accredited eczema expert, after spending considerable amounts of time on Google researching the allergy and drinking up all the information I could find on the issue. Google became an intimate part of my life at that time, and I consulted Google as I would a neighbour or an older woman with more information. When meeting up with other mothers in the real world I shared this information, and even toyed with the idea of starting a support group for mothers with babies who have eczema.

The role of the internet in my life changed completely after that. I became that person that told everyone to ‘Google it’-because at that time I believed that Google knew everything. Of course I had accessed and used the internet before, in academic spaces, when writing papers and carrying out research, and to socialise on Hi5 and Facebook and exchange emails with cyber-pen pals. But now the internet had become a relevant and integral part of my life, mostly because I could prove that my ability to access this information, had translated into real and lived change in my everyday life. My child’s eczema is now under control, and it is such a relief to have access to a variety of options which have helped spare my child the social trauma that many people with eczema experience.

Much as I am seen as a single parent and in many ways identify with the label, the truth is that I and Google are raising my child.
Beyond finding eczema remedies, information that I have accessed on Google has helped me find fun creative ways to spend time with my child, how get my child to eat peas and broccoli, and different ways to encourage positive ways of communication that bypass the corporal punishment method widely practised by many parents. I felt supported-in that way that I could easily access directly empowering information, that has had a direct impact on this scary and many times overwhelming work of parenthood. The help that my child – now five – now spends time on (or even with) Google watching YouTube videos (the theme song from Frozen is a recurring link on my browser) and playing games online. I never thought that technology would make a good (in some ways more reliable) co-parent. But I can say that Google does. Or rather the easy way that Google makes information accessible, does.

The internet and queer Africans

The incorporation of the internet and internet based technologies into the lives of queer Africans is no different. For queer African women and men, the internet can be a safe place. It is certainly a space of learning, sharing and community. Many queer Africans find spaces online to share their experiences and to fully express their sexuality, preferences and spaces to meet new people and interact. The internet creates an alternate reality for many gender non-conforming women and men-a place with a degree of freedom of expression and existence that is either lacking or limited in their realities and real lives. I know of many lesbian women who have online relationships with other lesbian women whether within their country or elsewhere in the world. And the experience is the same as any other kind of relationship-people meet and fall in love (or lust), date and break up online.

This is a relief, and in some cases an escape for many African women and men, who live in spaces that do not tolerate or allow their different ways of expressing themselves and their sexuality. But this escape is the privilege of a few African women and men. I am fortunate to come from a socio-economic and educational background that allows me to not only access the internet in my day to day life, but also to know what to look for online and how to navigate my way around the internet. I see the internet as a giant thrift store-with almost everything in the world-but not everything is valuable in this store- there are occasional gems, and always good deals, but you have to know what to look out for in this store. Not many African women and men have this privilege. And for queer Africans, this alternative world-this online existence that provides a [limited] freedom of being is inaccessible to them. For many other Africans, women especially, the opportunity to learn more about the internet and computer technologies which would help them know how to access important information online, is denied to them by socio-cultural and economic restraints.

There are also situations where, for queer Africans that can access the internet and the information contained-they become targets of blackmail and other online abuses by intolerant users. This, of course jeopardises the safety of being and freedom of expression that queer Africans seek online. But because the internet and online interactions are not considered ‘real’ enough by legislators and law enforcement – on top of the socially unacceptable sexual preferences of queer African women and men – we have to remain silent about the many abuses that we experience and encounter online. And we certainly cannot expect recourse. Therefore queer Africans face a double disadvantage in this instance. Your sexual orientation and the nature of your interactions are placed on the margins of margins, and we are then robbed of opportunities for learning, sharing and developing a sense of community which is a basic human need.

Why internet rights matter for Africans

Conversations about internet rights matter for all African people-regardless of our sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The internet is an important space for all African women and men, and our states need to guarantee our safe, and uncensored access to the internet. There are many excellent opportunities via the internet, and its accessibility and availability that can help facilitate the implementation of many social justice and economic empowerment programs for women, children and men. The internet is a tool for change, and education and a directly empowering conduit for its users.

There is something empowering, and agency affirming for a woman to be able to seek and access information, culturally relevant, honest and positive information about something relating to her sexual and reproductive health. In social and community settings with systems that position women as strangers to their own bodies, the internet is a good example of how a woman can directly access information relating to her body and her health in a way, space and pace that is relevant to her learning process. The change can be immediate. You have a question that you find to ask-and there is the internet with a plethora of answers that it offers. The privacy and anonymity that the internet should offer would allow for honest questions to be asked, and honest answers received, and no shame or backlash expected. This is the kind of internet we need-but this not necessarily the kind of internet we have.

In this light we, African women, queer and non-queer, need to participate actively toward contributing content to the internet. As well as be present in conversations around how we seek to see the internet governed. If indeed, we recognise the power that the internet holds in influencing and shaping change-then it is imperative that we help create the wealth and diversity of content that is found online. And that we are protected in our sharing and acquiring of this information. The change that we wish to see the internet effect in our lives, our work and our communities should be reflected on the internet that we use. Currently, the voices and presence of African women, children and men on the internet are a few and slanted-the variety is limited and the narratives repetitive and narrow. The internet doesn’t reflect the Africa that we know, experience and appreciate.

The internet is not being offered here as a silver bullet, or a utopian possibility. But it can be argued that its absence can do more harm than good, as far as information sharing as access goes. And the limitless possibilities for change that the internet offers African women and men should be explored and attempted. We need the internet today, no doubt about that, but not just any internet. We need a free, accessible, feminist internet, with content that reflects the reality of our African diversities, and puts women at the centre of its development, distribution and consumption.

 

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Sheena is the media and communications manager for the Coalition of African Lesbians, a regional representative organisation, with over 30 organisations represented across 19 different country in East and Southern Africa.

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Published on 04 Sep 2014

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