THE COAL TRAIN – A personal reflection on the people of CPRsouth

Posted by on September 13, 2018  /  0 Comments

Stimela sihamba ngamalahle, (The train that drives using coal)
Sivela eDalaku Bay (Coming from Delgoa Bay)
Sangilahla kwa-Guqa (It dropped me off Kwa-Guqa)
Bathi sizomba amalahle (They say we are here to mine for coal)
Sihleli njenge Zinja (We live like dogs)
Emigodini (Underground)
Sikhalel’ izihlobo zethu (We weep for our relatives)
Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)
Sikhalel’ izingane zethu (We weep for our children)
Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)

– Hugh Masekela, Stimela (Coal Train), 1994

If you had told me, five days ago, that I would be discussing Hugh Masekela with a man from Uganda, I would have given you the skeptical eyebrow and moved on. After all, I know nothing about jazz and nobody from Uganda.

Yet this is precisely what happened yesterday. People from twenty-five or so countries have descended on Maputo, Mozambique, for the CPRsouth conference. Some of them, including myself, are here to present policy papers. More of them are Young Scholars, hand-picked from across the world to be flown here and taught how to write and influence policy. And in this crowd is the Ugandan who will introduce me to Hugh Masekela.

His name is Mwesigwa Daniel.

Mwesigwa Daniel at CPRsouth in Maputo, Mozambique, September 2018.

Daniel is a lanky Ugandan, an economist-turned-writer with a flair for the dramatic. He made a bit of a splash among the Young Scholars at CPRsouth when the discussant asked him where he was from. He replied “Wakanda”.

We laughed. The discussant did not get the reference, of course, and after verifying where he actually came from (Uganda) she moved on. Still, Daniel’s Wakanda moment made him interesting: I approached the man and we traded notes – about the problematic politics of vibranium, about our different-yet-not-so-different cultures, about our disfunctional governments.

And, later, we fell to discussing the Maputo train station. Maputo, for the record, was until quite recently a Portuguese colony, and a poor one at that: there is a train station here that serves as a glorified remnant of its colonial past. The Africans in the CPRsouth crowd had walked out to this largely defunct station and declared it incredible. The Asians in the crowd had done the same and declared it boring. I wondered aloud about this split in perception.

So Daniel, who was passing by, explained about Hugh Masekela, the father of South African jazz, and his 1994 song Stimela, which talks about the slavery generations of African men have endured. Delgoa Bay is now what we called Maputo. The train came from here. For Daniel and the others this place is more than a colonial hangover. It is a symbol.

Daniel, like many of the Young Scholars here, has problems on his mind. He tells me about Bobi Wine, a Ugandan politician who was recently arrested and tortured by soldiers. He tells me about the social media tax in Uganda that their Parliament has endorsed – a fee to be levied on all mobile phone subscribers who use Facebook, Whatsapp and others. He talks about the Ugandan Communications Commission’s plan to make bloggers register and pay an annual fee. Both of these he sees as a dangerous impediment to free speech. I learn a lot about Uganda from these conversations.

In between these threads is a narrative: Daniel cares about these problems: he wants to figure out how he can make a change. He seems excited to bump heads with people who have thought about these things – many of whom he has never met. He is interested in anything and everything that will give him a better chance.

Daniel is not the only one looking for solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Evelyne Wanjiku, who is working on her PhD at Kenyatta University, is worried about pornography – in particular, the kind made and shared without the consent of all parties involved. A paper presenter at CPRsouth, she has pointed out glaring flaws in how Kenyan law deals with non-consensual pornography, and has explained at great length to the assembled CPRsouth audience that the maxim of de minimis non curat lex (the law cares not for trifles) has trivialized a rising trend of revenge porn in Kenya – and how, once generated, this content cannot be controlled by a thing as simple as national law.

Evelyne Wanjiku at CPRsouth in Maputo, Mozambique. September 2018

Evelyne, too, is here for answers. In between conversations about language – she is surprised that nobody in Maputo seems to speak Swahili, which is a sort of lingua franca in these parts – she tells me about women in Kenya, and how much there is to be done about getting them on an equal footing, especially in education and politics. We talk about the incredibly violent tribalism of Kenya, which spans at least forty different ethnic groups and leaves hundreds dead every election. Evelyne is fascinated by similarities with Myanmar – an Asian parallel she has learned about from a paper presented at CPRsouth. On the way back to the hotel, we discuss the pros and cons of China’s Belt and Road initiative, which rears its gargantuan head in both our home continents. She is worried that neither Asia nor Africa are prepared for the trade wars of superpowers.

A little later, poking through the nearby crafts market, I bump into Wairimu Macharia, also from Kenya. Wairimu is member of the Internet Society and a digital lead at Afrobarometer – a pan-African data portal that hosts a vast number of surveys on governance and society from over thirty African countries. Not only do they publish regular reports and dispatches on the status of African nations – they provide tools for the online analysis of this data. Wairimu is determined that their analyses do not die a slow academic death: she’s working on several partnerships with software engineers and civil socio-tech activists to make sure these get to journalists, politicians, diplomats – the kind of eyes and ears they need to make a change.

Her work has strong parallels in that of Deepanjalie Abeywardana, who runs the Media Research team at Verite Research, and is currently sitting next to Wairimu. Deepanjalie’s team, which works out of Sri Lanka, is an indirect attempt to elevate journalistic standards in a country that is trapped in a vicious cycle of propaganda, political bias and misrepresentation that pre-empted fake news long before the Americans got around to it. Her team pores over the news every day, identifying sentiment, trends and breaches of journalistic ethics in Sri Lanka. They are currently under attack by what appears to be a cabal of disgruntled journalists. Political pushback and death threats are part and parcel of the job – this is a country where the media is owned by a handful of people, all with political associations.

There is a long list of people to unravel here at CPRsouth, and I have not even unearthed a tenth of them here. Time and battery life impose a bounding box on what I can talk about. But this is the Global South in a nutshell: a series of nations with a laundry list of problems that makes Mordor look positively friendly. We have had ruthless colonial exploitation, banana republics, collapsing economies, journalists shot in the streets.  And in every country there is a resistance of sorts – young people who have thrown themselves into the fray to stem the tide of madness.

Some, like Evelyne and Deepanjalie, are pushing back. Others, like Wairimu and Daniel, are holding the line. And today they are all here at CPRsouth, all hungry for answers.

Watch them from a distance. They are thrown briefly into a melting pot of people like themselves – many who have met the same problems over and over again, and have learned how to fight. Out of the resulting soup emerges strange bones. Curious minds meet and long trails of conversation that chain and fork and pick up research methods here, datasets there, partnerships here. Asia learns from Africa and vice versa.

Daniel meets and peppers me with questions. How does he get into data science? What kind of skills do policymakers need? He is thoughtful. He wonders if he should keep writing.

Evelyne, who I cross paths with next, is eager: during the CPRsouth conference, Dr. Alison Gillwald, Helani Galpaya and Aileen Aguero have released a mammoth set of surveys from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The surveys contain comparable, nationally representative data on online harassment – fine-grained stuff that pairs different types of digital abuse with detailed demographic markers. Evelyne, who was in the audience, is hugely excited about the work she can do with this data.

Deepanjalie, who I will be stuck at the airport with for the next twelve hours, tells me that she’s now picked up a much richer understanding of comparative policy in the region, and a set of networks she can tap into for research – as well as policy loopholes that she was not formerly aware of, which she intends to look into. Her team is already working on fake news and cyberbullying – topics that were discussed in detail in both official and unofficial chats – and she intends to put this newfound knowledge to good use.

Wairimu, meanwhile, wants to know about LIRNEasia, and what kind of data and tooling we might have.

Slowly the Global South knits together. While I bounce about presenting papers and listening to South African jazz, the rest of them synchronize like gears in a far-flung timepiece, debating issues that many in the West neither know nor care about. Those isolated in the madness reach out to each other. I bump into Jaypy Tenerife, who is researching disaster response: I direct him to Nuwan Waidyanatha, Director of the Sahana Software Foundation, which provides open-source disaster management tooling to over thirty governments. Someone wants to do a study of legal frameworks for data privacy; I reroute them towards Ashwini Natesan, a lawyer who is examining health data policy in Sri Lanka.

The great pity here is that this kind of this happens all too rarely. Barring a few, almost everyone here has never met each other before, never come across each other’s work, except in remote news articles skimmed through by accident.

There is only one CPRsouth. There should be more – more conferences, more connections, more people explaining the value of a train station to someone who would never understand otherwise.

Evelyne asks me what I’m working on and I try to explain my idea of using topic modeling to map information flows in media. The explanation is haphazard: I’m mentally sorting through notes from all the hate speech and fake news research discussed here. There are systems from the West, built for English and other Latin-based languages, but we play a different game. From Thailand and South Korea comes research that I can actually use. In all my searches I’ve seen nothing from this side of the world – except in this handful of sessions here in Maputo.

And, for some bizarre reason, Hugh Masekela’s song is stuck in my head.

Sihleli njenge Zinja (We live like dogs)

Emigodini (Underground)

Somehow she makes sense of my scrambled explanation and gleans that I’ve gotten something useful out of CPRsouth. “Same here – I did not even know CPRsouth existed! I thought there was nobody working in my field,” she says. “So good to see other people working on these issues, in different countries, and I can learn from their methods, and share my data. Maybe now I have models for how these things should be done.”

I ask her if she plans to carry on her work in policy after her PhD is done. “Definitely,” she responds. “Now I know how to turn my research into policy. I spoke to Helani and think I will work with her on this. How do people keep in touch – is there like a Facebook group? Will this conference happen again?  Where will it be next time?”

I don’t know, I say. Let’s wait for them to announce it. I mentally write, rewrite, cut, chop and paste. In my head I now have something that looks like the research proposal I need it to be. I know I need to freeze it and frame it and hold on to it until I can write it down.

Daniel walks ahead, humming, a tall shadow written by the scorching Maputo sun. He twirls my walking stick. Down this road, eventually, is the train station. Now I’m thinking about the flight back to Sri Lanka, and all the work we have ahead.

Sikhalel’ izihlobo zethu (We weep for our relatives)

Masibuyeleni ekhaya bo (Let’s go back home)



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