Colonialists would often turn up at an African community and ask, “Who does that land belong to?” pointing to the vast fields around the village. Many times the reply from the villagers would be, “It does not belong to anyone.” The colonialists would then promptly set about fencing and craving up the land amongst themselves, which would enrage the Africans, which, in turn, would confuse the colonialists as, after all, they had been told that this land did not belong to anyone.
These exchanges highlight the differences in the cultures involved and the different understandings of what initially looks like a very simple situation. When the Africans tell the colonialists that this land does not belong to anybody, the colonialists would take that to mean that the land is unoccupied. “It does not belong to anyone” is taken to mean it is ownerless. That was a misunderstanding of what they had been told. For when the African said, “This land does not belong to anyone”, what they mean is this land does not belong to any single person or family. This land is the property of the community under the stewardship of those who currently occupy it.
Chief Elesi of Odogbolu, a Nigerian chief, told the West African land commission in 1912, that he “conceived that land belongs to a vast family of which many are dead, few are living and countless yet unborn”. In other words, “this land does not belong to anyone” meant this land belongs to everyone. It is occupied by us, but we do not own it, we are merely the current stewards holding it for future generations.
In my talk during the Digital Citizen Indaba I touched upon the issue of the African blogosphere and ownership asking, “Who owns the African blogosphere”? I used the above example of our ancestors’ attitude to land as the basis of my understanding. In my opinion the internet is a space through which discussion takes place and blogs are the tool through which we utilise that space for discussion. In other words this space we have carved on the internet is our land and bloggers are the occupiers of that land. Like our ancestors I believe that this land does not belong to any of us, it belongs to all of us.
Why is this important? First of all this space belonging to all of us means that there is room for all of us and for all our opinions in that space and we all have an equal right to it. For example those who feel unrepresented in the main stream media can use this space to get their message across. Those who feel left out of the national conversation can use this space to get their message across. Ndesanjo in his keynote address emphasised this highlighting that several Africans who happen to be gay had used this space to express themselves through blogs, several Africans who happen to be white or of Asian origin had used this space to express themselves through their blogs.
Another example, last year during the time of the first DCI there was a passionate, and at times, heated debate about whether a blogging conference organised largely by South Africans, who happened to be white, and held at a university named after Rhodes, had the right to call itself African. I felt then as I do now that, yes, they had the right to call it a conference of African bloggers. I feel no one has the right to stop other bloggers from organising themselves in a way they feel fit. Once you start putting restrictions on how bloggers organise themselves then you are on the slippery slope that ends up with putting restrictions on what bloggers can write about. For if you think that these guys do not have the right to organise a conference for African bloggers do they have the right to write about African bloggers or as African bloggers?
I should clarify the difference between those who objected to the content of the conference and those who object to the very notion of the conference. The DCI crew never claimed to be organising a perfect conference and gave us the opportunity to give our feedback on what they did right and what they could do better. This year you can see they took the suggestions on board. A big issue last year was the DCI venue did not have wireless internet access, this year we had wireless internet access. Last year we raised the issue of representation amongst the speakers in terms of geographical location and content. This year we have spent a lot of time examining the role of language which was led by Tanzanian bloggers with their central role in the Kiswahili blogosphere. We also looked at cyber activism is Ethiopia and Zimbabwe as well v-blogging, photo-blogging and open source. Space to give feedback and raise issues about the content of a conference should always be available. Feedback I have no problem with. What I object to is those who feel that the conference itself had no right to exist in any form.
That is not to say that all bloggers must agree with all other bloggers all the time or even most of the time. In fact we do not have to agree at all! I hope that having disagreements and differences of opinion does not mean we can not sit down together at the end of the debate and appreciate each other. But if that is not the case, the good thing about this space we are carving on the internet is that it is basically limitless. If you do not like the way people are doing things you can start your own thing. Just do not try to stop people from doing what they are doing by placing artificial restrictions based on your opinion of what is and isn’t for they have as much right to this space as you do.