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TED2016

Siyanda Mohutsiwa: How young Africans found a voice on Twitter

February 18, 2016

What can a young woman with an idea, an Internet connection and a bit of creativity achieve? That's all Siyanda Mohutsiwa needed to unite young African voices in a new way. Hear how Mohutsiwa and other young people across the continent are using social media to overcome borders and circumstance, accessing something they have long had to violently take: a voice.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa - Writer
When her hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar went viral, Botswana writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa triggered a lighthearted but electrifying discussion of some serious African issues. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
It began with one question:
00:12
If Africa was a bar, what would
your country be drinking or doing?
00:17
I kicked it off with a guess
about South Africa,
00:23
which wasn't exactly
according to the rules
00:26
because South Africa's not my country.
00:28
But alluding to the country's
continual attempts
00:31
to build a postracial society
00:34
after being ravaged
for decades by apartheid,
00:37
I tweeted, #ifafricawasabar South Africa
would be drinking all kinds of alcohol
00:40
and begging them
to get along in its stomach.
00:46
And then I waited.
00:50
And then I had that funny feeling
where I wondered if I crossed the line.
00:52
So, I sent out a few other tweets
about my own country
00:55
and a few other African countries
I'm familiar with.
00:59
And then I waited again,
01:02
but this time
01:03
I read through almost every tweet
I had ever tweeted
01:04
to convince myself,
01:08
no, to remind myself that I'm really funny
01:10
and that if nobody gets it, that's fine.
01:14
But luckily,
01:18
I didn't have to do that for very long.
01:20
Very soon, people were participating.
01:22
In fact, by the end of that week in July,
01:26
the hashtag #ifafricawasabar
01:29
would have garnered around 60,000 tweets,
01:31
lit up the continent
01:35
and made its way to publications
all over the world.
01:37
People were using the hashtag
to do many different things.
01:41
To poke fun at their stereotypes:
01:45
[#IfAfricaWasABar
Nigeria would be outside explaining
01:47
that he will pay the entrance fee,
01:49
all he needs is
the bouncer's account details.]
01:51
(Laughter)
01:54
To criticize government spending:
01:55
[#ifafricawasabar South Africa would be
ordering bottles it can't pronounce
01:57
running a tab it won't be able to pay]
02:01
To make light of geopolitical tensions:
02:03
[#IfAfricaWasABar
South Sudan would be the new guy
02:05
with serious anger management issues.]
02:08
To remind us that even in Africa
02:10
there are some countries
we don't know exist:
02:12
[#IfAfricaWasABar
Lesotho would be that person
02:14
who nobody really knows
but is always in the pictures.]
02:17
And also to make fun of the countries
that don't think that they're in Africa:
02:20
[#IfAfricaWasABar Egypt, Libya,
Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco
02:24
be like "What the hell
are we doing here?!!"]
02:27
(Laughter)
02:29
And to note the countries
that had made a big turnaround:
02:31
[#ifAfricawasabar
Rwanda would be that girl
02:35
that comes with no money and no transport
but leaves drunk, happy and rich]
02:37
But most importantly,
02:41
people were using the hashtag to connect.
02:44
People were connecting
over their Africanness.
02:47
So for one week in July,
02:50
Twitter became a real African bar.
02:53
And I was really thrilled,
02:57
mainly because I realized
that Pan-Africanism could work,
02:58
that we had before us,
between us, at our fingertips
03:04
a platform that just needed a small spark
03:09
to light in us a hunger for each other.
03:12
My name is Siyanda Mohutsiwa,
03:16
I'm 22 years old
03:19
and I am Pan-Africanist by birth.
03:20
Now, I say I'm Pan-Africanist by birth
03:23
because my parents are
from two different African countries.
03:26
My father's from a country
called Botswana in southern Africa.
03:29
It's only slightly bigger than Germany.
03:33
This year we celebrate
our 50th year of stable democracy.
03:36
And it has some very progressive
social policies.
03:40
My mother's country
is the Kingdom of Swaziland.
03:44
It's a very, very small country,
also in southern Africa.
03:48
It is Africa's last complete monarchy.
03:51
So it's been ruled by a king
and a royal family
03:55
in line with their tradition,
03:58
for a very long time.
03:59
On paper, these countries
seem very different.
04:01
And when I was a kid,
I could see the difference.
04:04
It rained a lot in one country,
it didn't rain quite as much in the other.
04:08
But outside of that,
I didn't really realize
04:12
why it mattered that my parents
were from two different places.
04:15
But it would go on
to have a very peculiar effect on me.
04:19
You see, I was born in one country
04:23
and raised in the other.
04:26
When we moved to Botswana,
04:28
I was a toddler who spoke fluent SiSwati
04:30
and nothing else.
04:33
So I was being introduced to my new home,
04:35
my new cultural identity,
04:37
as a complete outsider,
04:40
incapable of comprehending
anything that was being said to me
04:42
by the family and country whose traditions
I was meant to move forward.
04:46
But very soon, I would shed SiSwati.
04:50
And when I would go back to Swaziland,
04:55
I would be constantly confronted
by how very non-Swazi I was becoming.
04:57
Add to that my entry
into Africa's private school system,
05:02
whose entire purpose
is to beat the Africanness out of you,
05:06
and I would have
a very peculiar adolescence.
05:10
But I think that my interest
in ideas of identity was born here,
05:14
in the strange intersection
of belonging to two places at once
05:19
but not really belonging
to either one very well
05:24
and belonging to this vast space
in between and around simultaneously.
05:27
I became obsessed with the idea
of a shared African identity.
05:33
Since then, I have continued
to read about politics
05:40
and geography and identity
and what all those things mean.
05:43
I've also held on to a deep curiosity
about African philosophies.
05:46
When I began to read,
05:51
I gravitated towards the works
of black intellectuals
05:52
like Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon,
05:56
who tackled complex ideas
05:58
like decolonization
and black consciousness.
06:00
And when I thought, at 14,
that I had digested these grand ideas,
06:03
I moved on to the speeches
of iconic African statesmen
06:07
like Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara
06:11
and Congo's Patrice Lumumba.
06:14
I read every piece of African fiction
that I could get my hands on.
06:17
So when Twitter came,
06:21
I hopped on with the enthusiasm
of a teenage girl
06:23
whose friends are super, super bored
of hearing about all this random stuff.
06:27
The year was 2011
06:34
and all over southern Africa
and the whole continent,
06:35
affordable data packages
for smartphones and Internet surfing
06:38
became much easier to get.
06:42
So my generation, we were sending
messages to each other on this platform
06:45
that just needed 140 characters
and a little bit of creativity.
06:50
On long commutes to work,
06:55
in lectures that some of us
should have been paying attention to,
06:57
on our lunch breaks,
07:01
we would communicate as much as we could
07:02
about the everyday realities
of being young and African.
07:04
But of course, this luxury
was not available to everybody.
07:08
So this meant that if you were
a teenage girl in Botswana
07:12
and you wanted
to have fun on the Internet,
07:15
one, you had to tweet in English.
07:18
Two, you had to follow more than just
the three other people you knew online.
07:20
You had to follow South Africans,
Zimbabweans, Ghanaians, Nigerians.
07:25
And suddenly, your whole world opened up.
07:30
And my whole world did open up.
07:33
I followed vibrant Africans
who were travelling around the continent,
07:35
taking pictures of themselves
07:39
and posting them
under the hashtag #myafrica.
07:41
Because at that time,
07:44
if you were to search Africa
on Twitter or on Google
07:45
or any kind of social media,
07:48
you would think that the entire continent
was just pictures of animals
07:51
and white guys drinking cocktails
in hotel resorts.
07:54
(Laughter)
07:58
But Africans were using this platform
08:00
to take some kind of ownership
of the tourism sectors.
08:03
It was Africans taking selfies
on the beaches of Nigeria.
08:07
It was Africans
in cocktail bars in Nairobi.
08:11
And these were the same Africans
that I began to meet
08:14
in my own travels around the continent.
08:17
We would discuss African literature,
politics, economic policy.
08:19
But almost invariably, every single time,
08:24
we would end up discussing Twitter.
08:28
And that's when I realized what this was.
08:31
We were standing in the middle
of something amazing,
08:34
because for the first time ever
08:38
young Africans could discuss
the future of our continent in real time,
08:40
without the restriction of borders,
finances and watchful governments.
08:45
Because the little known truth is
08:50
many Africans know a lot less
about other African countries
08:52
than some Westerners
might know about Africa as a whole.
08:56
This is by accident,
08:59
but sometimes, it's by design.
09:01
For example, in apartheid South Africa,
09:03
black South Africans
were constantly being bombarded
09:06
with this message that any country
ruled by black people
09:10
was destined for failure.
09:13
And this was done to convince them
09:15
that they were much better off
under crushing white rule
09:17
than they were living
in a black and free nation.
09:21
Add to that Africa's colonial,
archaic education system,
09:25
which has been unthinkingly
carried over from the 1920s --
09:30
and at the age of 15,
I could name all the various causes
09:34
of the wars that had happened
in Europe in the past 200 years,
09:39
but I couldn't name the president
of my neighboring country.
09:43
And to me, this doesn't make any sense
09:46
because whether we like it or not,
09:49
the fates of African people
are deeply intertwined.
09:51
When disaster hits, when turmoil hits,
09:55
we share the consequences.
09:59
When Burundians flee political turmoil,
10:01
they go to us,
10:04
to other African countries.
10:05
Africa has six of the world's
largest refugee centers.
10:07
What was once a Burundian problem
10:12
becomes an African problem.
10:14
So to me, there are no Sudanese problems
10:16
or South African problems
or Kenyan problems,
10:20
only African problems
10:22
because eventually, we share the turmoil.
10:24
So if we share the problems,
10:27
why aren't we doing a better job
of sharing the successes?
10:29
How can we do that?
10:33
Well, in the long term,
10:34
we can shoot towards
increasing inter-African trade,
10:35
removing borders
and putting pressure on leaders
10:38
to fulfill regional agreements
they've already signed.
10:40
But I think that the biggest way
for Africa to share its successes
10:45
is to foster something
I like to call social Pan-Africanism.
10:50
Now, political Pan-Africanism
already exists,
10:55
so I'm not inventing anything
totally new here.
10:58
But political Pan-Africanism
11:01
is usually the African unity
of the political elite.
11:02
And who does that benefit?
11:06
Well, African leaders, almost exclusively.
11:07
No, what I'm talking about
11:11
is the Pan-Africanism
of the ordinary African.
11:14
Young Africans like me,
11:17
we are bursting with creative energy,
11:19
with innovative ideas.
11:22
But with bad governance
and shaky institutions,
11:25
all of this potential could go to waste.
11:28
On a continent where more
than a handful of leaders
11:31
have been in power longer
11:33
than the majority
of the populations has been alive,
11:35
we are in desperate need of something new,
11:40
something that works.
11:43
And I think that thing
is social Pan-Africanism.
11:45
My dream is that young Africans
11:51
stop allowing borders and circumstance
to suffocate our innovation.
11:54
My dream is that when a young African
comes up with something brilliant,
12:00
they don't say, "Well,
this wouldn't work in my country,"
12:04
and then give up.
12:07
My dream is that young Africans
begin to realize
12:09
that the entire continent
is our canvas, is our home.
12:13
Using the Internet,
we can begin to think collaboratively,
12:18
we can begin to innovate together.
12:23
In Africa, we say,
"If you want to go fast, you go alone,
12:25
but if you want to go far,
you go together."
12:29
And I believe that social Pan-Africanism
is how we can go far together.
12:32
And this is already happening.
12:39
Access to these online networks
has given young Africans
12:41
something we've always
had to violently take: a voice.
12:44
We now have a platform.
12:48
Before now, if you wanted
to hear from the youth in Africa,
12:50
you waited for the 65-year-old
minister of youth --
12:54
(Laughter)
12:58
to wake up in the morning,
12:59
take his heartburn medication
13:01
and then tell you the plans
he has for your generation
13:05
in 20 years time.
13:08
Before now, if you wanted to be heard
by your possibly tyrannical government,
13:10
you were pushed to protest,
suffer the consequences
13:16
and have your fingers crossed
13:19
that some Western paper somewhere
might make someone care.
13:21
But now we have opportunities
to back each other up
13:25
in ways we never could before.
13:28
We support South African students
13:30
who are marching against
ridiculously high tertiary fees.
13:32
We support Zimbabwean women
who are marching to parliament.
13:35
We support Angolan journalists
who are being illegally detained.
13:39
For the first time ever,
13:43
African pain and African aspiration
13:45
has the ability to be witnessed
13:50
by those who can empathize
with it the most:
13:53
other Africans.
13:56
I believe that with
a social Pan-Africanist thinking
13:58
and using the Internet as a tool,
14:02
we can begin to rescue each other,
14:05
and ultimately, to rescue ourselves.
14:08
Thank you.
14:12
(Applause)
14:13

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Siyanda Mohutsiwa - Writer
When her hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar went viral, Botswana writer Siyanda Mohutsiwa triggered a lighthearted but electrifying discussion of some serious African issues.

Why you should listen

Blogger, humorist and math student Siyanda Mohutsiwa explores African topics both weighty (reviving Pan­Africanism) and witty (“5 things NOT to say when trying to seduce an Afrikaner”). Her columns for African media outlets like the Mail & Guardian, Za News, and her own website Siyanda Writes have gained a loyal following. 

But when Mohutsiwa’s hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar exploded on Twitter, the viral thread (which pondered the hypothetical bar mannerisms of various African nations) became a platform for everyday Africans to unite in a playful dialogue on national differences, and helped turn Mohutsiwa into a social media star. 

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