What are we looking for? : Research on Community Networks

Image sourced from website of Zenzeleni Networks. Licensed under CC attribution-noncommercial-sharealike

As I am observing the diverse research projects that are emerging in Africa in relation to community networks (CNs), I am compelled to write this short commentary. I have worked in Zenzeleni Networks as a gender analyst for +/- 2 years. As a black African feminist scholar, I was invited to explore and analyze gender dynamics within Zenzeleni Networks. The research focuses on participation of women in Mankosi community in the CN project. The objective for this research was to find a way to create space for women to actively participate in this network project1. This article is not about my research in Mankosi community. However, I will draw more information from my experience in that space.

The fieldwork in Mankosi community caused me to think so much about third-world feminist research in ICTD endeavors. I was overwhelmed by the realization of how much we depend on western theorizing to make sense of our everyday life. Even the research question we ask unthinkingly mimics research questions from/by the West. The research findings in Mankosi humbled me. I learned to clean my eyeglasses first before looking into the community, particularly women’s life.

The fieldwork in Mankosi community caused me to think so much about third-world feminist research in ICTD endeavors. I was overwhelmed by the realization of how much we depend on western theorizing to make sense of our everyday life.

Another political awakening experience happened at the AfriCHI’16 conference in Kenya. Our (I wrote the research finding with three colleagues) paper was accepted in AfriCHI. As the lead researcher and author, with regards to the gender enquiry, I was expected to present the paper. I attended many astounding seminars and workshops in the conference. I met many young African researchers, activists, and practitioners. Of course, I presented the paper, in a room full of academics and practitioners. As usual, presenting a feminist research in conventional technology conferences has its own dynamics. In relation to this, there have been many critics around the systematic marginalization of research topic related to gender issues in ICTD spaces. However, I wasn’t too unhappy about these dynamics; as after a while you get accustomed to the precariousness of such spaces in relation to feminist work. It is very difficult to predict to what extent your research findings spark interest in such a space. More often, feminist ICT research work that focuses precisely on women and LGBTI group somehow is seen as the sole responsibility and interest of feminists and gender activists. Thus when these types of research are presented in a bigger venue with different experts, it tends to generate awkward communication (Perhaps I will deal with this issue in my next writing).

More often, feminist ICT research work that focuses precisely on women and LGBTI group somehow is seen as the sole responsibility and interest of feminists and gender activists.

So, as you can imagine the political discussion didn’t occur during my presentation. It happened at the 1st Summit on Community Networks in Africa organized by Internet Society (ISOC) and co-located with AfriCHI. Different community network practitioners and a few researchers like me attended this workshop. It was here that I understood how complex a community network is, not only in technological design and infrastructure but also the political discourse and rationalization of the need for CNs in Africa. CN project leaders and practitioner from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and DRC presented their projects in a non-academic manner – as it should be. One of the common themes in these presentations was “community participation”. Presenters were either excited about community involvement or concerned about community participation.

It was here that I understood how complex a community network is, not only in technological design and infrastructure but also the political discourse and rationalization of the need for CNs in Africa. One of the common themes in these presentations was “community participation”. Presenters were either excited about community involvement or concerned about community participation.

Fast forward: research organizations and activists are becoming more interested in exploring the question of women’s participation in CNs in Africa and other countries located in the South2. I think this is a very interesting project. We definitely need to construct a way for women to actively participate in CN projects. In fact in any ICTD project. As a feminist, I do support enthusiastically gender related research projects in ICTD. However, as intersectional feminist thinking and theorizing suggests, we can no more research on women’s issues separate from the intensely present structural inequalities that is experienced in the everyday life of communities.

As a feminist, I do support enthusiastically gender related research projects in ICTD. However, as intersectional feminist thinking and theorizing suggests, we can no more research on women’s issues separate from the intensely present structural inequalities that is experienced in the everyday life of communities.

The assumption with a gender-specific research question is that, men are participating in the CN project and women are as usual left out; or women are not given the space. This is not entirely false. However, what we have learned from the research on Zenzeleni in Mankosi is that, it is not only whether or not women are participating, we should also ask what is considered as “participation” in CN projects (see Hussen, et al 2016).

We should also ask what is considered as “participation” in CN projects.

The realization I/we had, in relation to the unwise questions we were asking, in our research led us to discover the bigger question that needs to be explored more deeply. And, it continues to be the elephant in the room – that of sustainable and active CN participation, and committed end-users of the network. In other words, how do CN project developers, researchers, and local champions, work with communities to use the CN model as an alternative way of access to information that provides autonomy and political agency for the community? It is one thing to build the technology; it is another to get users committed to using the technology3; and autonomously maintain the technology.

Speaking from where I am located, and my experience in Mankosi, an alternative bottom up network like a community network is not an ordinary concept to grasp. For many years, communities especially in rural area such as Mankosi, have lived with telecommunication service providers that have a long-standing marketing relationship with the society. The monopolized capitalist marketing strategy means they have become the classical identifiers of “communication”. The exploitation is embedded in the branding and the telecommunication services provided in their/our everyday life. For instance, my observation in Mankosi was many people I spoke with are registered clients with the MTN service provider. How do IT developers, activist and researchers disrupt this relationship and encourage the community to use the alternative network that is implemented in their village? In relation to this, Rey Moreno et al (2015) have done research on community ownership of the community network in Mankosi.

My observation in Mankosi was many people I spoke with are registered clients with the MTN service provider. How do IT developers, activist and researchers disrupt this relationship and encourage the community to use the alternative network that is implemented in their village?

Now, where does this leave us with the question of gender? The mutual existence of patriarchy and capitalism is unquestionable. We have learned repeatedly how technology is not gender neutral. Therefore, the argument here is not to suggest that the ongoing feminist research on CN is unsuitable. Indeed, we should and we must. My concern is directed at the danger of looking into the complexities of CNs participation from “gender-only” perspective. I think our research should also critically look into and evaluate “community participation”. We need to explore if the political ideology and potential impact behind the technology is transferred in these communities.

IT developers, activists and researchers have to invest time and interest to understand what “community” means politically for the African society (this could also include other countries), and how can we communicate about the alternative communication medium that many we are working on with the communities. In all these questions, we are able to confront issues of women’s access to the technology, women’s agency and active participation in community networks.

Sometimes we must look where we should not be looking in order to find what we are looking for.

My concern is directed at the danger of looking into the complexities of CNs participation from “gender-only” perspective. I think our research should also critically look into and evaluate “community participation”.

Footnotes: 

1. I invite you to read the article we wrote based on the research findings to gain more contextual understanding (see Hussen et al. 2016). Go back to main text

2. I was invited to be part of an inspiring CN research methodological conversation that focuses on women. (Go back to main text)

3. I must say here, in Mankosi it is reported that there is some progress in terms of “commitment to use” the technology. (Go back to main text)

References

Rey-Moreno, C. Sabiescu, A. G., Siya, M. J., & Tucker, W. D. (2015). “Local Ownership, Exercise of Ownership and Moving from Passive to Active Entitlement: A practice-led inquiry on a rural community network”. The Journal of Community Informatics. Vol 11 No 2.

Hussen, T. S., Bidwell, N. J., Rey-Moreno, C., & Tucker, W. D. (2016). “Gender and Participation: Critical Reflection on Zenzeleni Networks in Mankosi, South Africa”. In Proc. AfriCHI (pp. 12–23). Nairobi, Kenya: ACM. Nov 21-25. ISBN: 978-1-4503-4830-0.