Adhoc Networking in the Sahel

Christopher Kirkley

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The Sahel, the belt of parched earth that lies between the Sahara and the tropical Africa is a vast region that practically goes unnoticed, bookended by two massive and more known ecosystems. Encompassing much of Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, the landscape is covered by parched earth and scrublands and home to the last nomadic people. But it’s also a land of globalized innovation, where youth zip around on Chinese motorbikes, carry USB keys around their necks, and play the latest hip-hop from cellphone speakers.

When the Sahel does get attention, it’s often via unflattering media portraits talking of humanitarian crises, shadowy terrorist organizations, and impoverished development. Like most of the African continent, the Sahel has been shrouded in myth and misinformation — mainly because it is not connected to the internet, and doesn’t participate in the global network society. But nevertheless, the Sahel has its own thriving digital culture, isolated as it may be.

In the past years, trade has inundated the Sahel with inexpensive technology. Cybercafes have sprung up throughout the capitals with used PCs arriving via Europe. But the real technological revolution has been based around something much more inconspicuous: the cellphone.

The Cellphone musical network

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In 2007, cheap Chinese phones made their way to the Sahel. Aside from making calls, they included a myriad of additional features like built-in cameras and hard drives. In addition, these cellphones boasted tiny speakers capable of playing back MP3s. In the past few years, the soundscape has been transformed with these cellular boomboxes with a constant barrage of music. As the first widely embraced digital device, the cellphone “hard drives” have become dynamic collections of songs.

Cellphones don’t just play music — they can also trade it. Since most of the Sahel doesn’t have internet access, the only way to get a song is directly from a friend. Songs are shared in very literal peer-to-peer transfers, where phones are held up to one another and MP3s are sent via Bluetooth. The combination of a world without internet and mobile data devices has led to a singular network of music across the Sahel. With a little imagination, the entire map of West Africa can be seen as a metaphoric internet, the roads as fiber optic cables and the capitals as nodes of exchange.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the music circulating on cellphones are local, DIY creations, composed around campfires using cracked software from home PCs. Most of these songs exist only on this “local internet” and won’t be found on Google. In terms of technological egalitarianism, it’s great — there’s no financial cost to share a song. However, this network of music is essentially a digital survival of the fittest arena, where only the “best” and most popular songs survive. Limited by storage capacity and without a centralized “cloud”, if a song is not well-liked it can pretty quickly disappear.

Sahel Digital Art

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Images from Sahel Digital Art

In addition to trading sound, cellphones can photograph and trade images. Combined with the steady proliferation of the home PC and the cybercafe (though Mali is still ranked 123rd/125 by the UN in internet takeup), a new generation has began to experiment with tools and language of visual design. Utilizing software templates and web-based montage, personal identity can be re-imagined into fantastical places and forms. Invoking the colorful and sometimes garish language of montage, digital distortions, lens flares, and pixelation, these images are informed by Western cultural objects, while liberated from the points of origin.

These digital manifestations are important as much for the personal as the political. While young people are using design to insert themselves into new places like Paris or New York and surround themselves with stacks of money and luxury cars, the political force has been creating their own digital state. The north of Mali has broken off and are seeking to create the independent state of Azawad, and this state is largely expressed via images. While Azawad is yet to be internationally recognized, the creators in the Sahel continue to flood networks with mockups of passports, a photoshopped seat at the United Nations, and even an Azawad soccer jersey.

The Talking Cat of Azawad

The Northern portion of Mali has slipped into chaos, leaving it without fixed news media. Islamist militants have taken control of the cities, and even the most dogged reporters have beaten a hasty retreat to the capital. Western media empires are turning to internet sources, cellphone photos, and cryptic comments on Facebook walls.

A group of Tuareg youth living in exile have decided to create their own newsroom to fill the void. Over the past months, Tamositte n’Azawad (“the Kitten of Azawad”) has been issuing broadcasts on the situation in the North. Tamositte has been one of the most consistent media voices (with a penchant for satire). Its creators utilise the iPhone/Android App Talking Tom Cat, which generates a feline avatar, pitches up the speaker’s voice and, in this case, places the avatar in a newsroom set. To those accustomed to drier news media, the FX are incongruous, but here Talking Tom Cat has been transformed into a new media mouthpiece, addressing very specific aspects of the conflict that are glossed over by international media: alliances between various tribes, critiques of rebel leaders, and chastising corrupt politicians.

I spoke to one of the creators of Tamositte, who explained her goal is to “raise awareness amongst the Tuareg in the North.” By connecting with young people in Northern Mali, they could provide commentary on topics concerning the Tuareg community. And like most of the media of the North, Tamositte was created with a specific purpose — to make it back onto cellphones.

Christopher Kirkley is a musicologist and the creator of Sahelsounds.com, a project exploring the cultural and musical phenomena of the Sahel region of West Africa.