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Friday, September 25, 2020

The Gambia Project (Part 1)

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I make it a point of duty to read all the Gambian paper sites every morning: from Observer to Foroyaa to The Point to all the new online-only ones. When I see a report on an event and put it in my status, or discuss it online, it is entirely because I am interested in the best happening for The Gambia, not because I have some devious plan in mind to undermine the state. And I am not an anomaly: the vast majority of Gambians who consort online – across all political persuasions – are this way. Stifling all their voices, reducing them to repeating bland platitudes about the country, cuts off an important source of input to the state and its self-correcting mechanisms. 

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There will always be an uneasy relationship between the state and information: the state on one hand wanting to possess as much of it as possible on citizens, in order to operate more efficiently and perpetuate its rule; on the other wishing to reveal as little as possible about itself and its inner workings. I believe this is a characteristic of the state itself, rather than any particular government. This is why a certain guarantee of freedom of expression is necessary in the constitution, in order that the state’s natural unease and paranoia do not turn into a disproportionate lashing out, a silencing where there should be an attentive listening, condemnation where they should be encouragement. 

 Fish, to paraphrase the old adage, do not know they swim in “water” – to them the water IS the world. And so it was for me before I left The Gambia. I saw all the flaws and, like other youths before me, wanted only an escape to a flawless-looking place, a place in which I could dream and grow and become. What I did not see at the time was how badly I would miss The Gambia once I left; what I did not understand – because I was surrounded by water – was how deep my connection to the country ran, and the emptiness my absence from it would leave in my life. It took a leaving, a viewing from a distance, not just to truly appreciate what we as a country have, but to also more keenly feel what we lack. And then – though this took a bit longer – I came to an even fuller understanding and saw: the place I need to dream and grow is nowhere else but Home. And if we do not yet possess all the qualities to make my dream of dreaming come true, then it is upon me to return and do what little I can, and see to it that my children and their children after them will not need to travel to strange lands to understand the ways in which The Gambia can be loved and, perhaps someday, even understand the ways in which The Gambia can love back… This was the beginning of what I came to call The Gambia Project, the development of our country by our collective might and will: something bigger than any single one of us, both in terms of scope and, perhaps even more important, longevity (by which I mean it will outlast us all, as it has outlasted those who came before us). I chose the word project for a simple reason: a project is not a finished thing, neither are the plans made for it things set in stone that cannot be changed. Instead it is a constantly shifting thing, adapting to new situations and new sensibilities, benefiting from a feedback loop that re-corrects and re-calibrates it when it loses its way. 

 It is gratifying to trace the introduction of new technologies to The Gambia through history: the first printing presses, the first radio transmitters and receivers, the first television sets; each new one strange until it became commonplace, and then taken for granted. While the Internet may seem to be an extension of these earlier communication technologies, it is in fact in another class because of one fundamental difference: it is participatory by nature. While the other media have had primitive systems of user participation (in the case of the newspaper with the “letters to the editor” page, for example, or in the case of the radio or TV with phone-in shows), none of them takes participation – in as many forms as there are people online – to such unprecedented heights. There are many more Gambians online now than there were only five years ago. This tide cannot be stemmed – more and more people will get access to ever more advanced communication technologies (for proof we only have to look at how far we have come since Gamcel sold their first cellphones – in only a few short years mobile phones have gone from being a luxury to something that has become essential as the primary mode of communication). 

Of course it’s all well and good to talk about ideals and the future of The Gambia, but what about the very real problem of the country’s image abroad being damaged by unfavorable reports? What do we do when investors are scared away because of the picture of the country painted online, directly impacting our economy and its chance at growing? What do we do when someone invents lies about the country and puts them up, and attracts other people who believe in the lie, thereby helping it spread? But attempting to fix this problem (making the country’s image “safer”) by shutting down the sources of information (however misguided they may be) is like fixing your make-up problems by smashing the mirror. Not only is your image still bad, but every other mirror you look in will report back exactly the same information. And so focusing on the mirror is merely a diversion and not a permanent solution. 

Now in real life if a man were to put up a placard at his gate claiming a falsehood that is a threat to the state the obvious answer would be: send a team to his house. Get the sign down and charge him. A placard on a gate does not transmit information beyond a limited region: perhaps a few of his neighbours saw the falsehood, but that would be about the extent of it. So the shutdown-and-contain strategy works. And so it becomes tempting to extrapolate this to the Internet, but that betrays a shallow looking at the problem. The Internet isn’t the one man with the placard at his gate; it is one man putting up a placard and a 100,000 other people having a copy of the placard appear at their front gate immediately. Taking away the original man and his placard does not in any way mitigate the spread of the misinformation. 

The only way to fight misinformation is with correct information for one simple reason: misinformation travels far faster and spreads far wider than any attempt to censor it possibly could. And in its trail the misinformation leaves captured and agitated hearts and minds – because of this neither the carrot nor the stick work (they in fact have the opposite effect to their intended one: attempting to suppress the misinformation only seems like confirming it to observers, which actually gives the misinformation credence and makes it spread faster). And so the only way to combat misinformation is to present everyone holding it with the actual, true information – to soothe agitated minds, to free minds captured by its dark twin (for information and misinformation are two sides of the same coin). This is a far more permanent solution than suppression: in addition to correcting people’s impressions you have also taught them to take the source of the misinformation with a grain of salt next time. 

 Yet the government’s online presence has not been anywhere near as effective as it could be. While the State House website is perfectly functional (if rather drab) it is very lacking in participatory features, and is more a passive information source than anything else. While it is a good start it is not by any means all it could be. The creation of an online hub of government activities and data would not only inform citizens on what is going on in the country, but also allow them to participate beyond merely voting in elections. And websites are just the beginning: the fact that mobile phones have exploded in use in recent years gives the government a whole new medium of communication, far more powerful than any it has ever possessed. Working with GSM operators text messages could be sent containing information of interest (e.g. farmers receiving information about the prices of crops, weather warnings and forecasts, and invitations to meetings; the government texting citizens to remind them to go vote (which might help with the voter apathy problem); pregnant women (once they register with the hospital) being sent reminder messages about upcoming maternal visits; Nawec sending messages about scheduled maintenance blackouts and how long they’ll last; citizens texting in to report infrastructure damages – the possibilities are endless, and limited only by our imagination). 

 This, then, is The Gambia Project: all hands on deck, everyone pitching in whatever way they can: from the only teacher in a village up-country, unrecognised and un-feted, toiling away in obscurity and on a basic salary yet going out of his way to make sure the kids he teaches have a better chance, giving them the skills they need to make something of themselves; to the parliamentarian fighting that much harder to make sure her constituency’s playground is not used as a dump. Stop for a moment and consider: what is it that you do well, that you love doing? What could you bring to The Gambia, that does not exist, or perhaps is done in a way which you think you could do better?

 

This article was originally published in Balafong.com, a center for peer-writing and sharing of quality literary material of all types from an inspiring group of Gambian writers.

 

Author: Amran Gaye 

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