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Young Sudanese, 'Hungry' for Change, Take Up Crisis Mapping and Blogging

BY Amanda Sperber | Thursday, August 29 2013

Screenshot of the Facebook page for civil society initiative, Nafeer (Nafeer/Facebook)

You can’t use a credit card anywhere in Sudan, but that national hindrance doesn’t really compare to the situation in Darfur, the extreme poverty and the repressive authoritarian government headed by International Criminal Court indicted Omar al-Bashir.

Despite or perhaps because of this, Sudan is seeing a small, but strong and steady growth of activism and mobilization through tech. This movement is largely spearheaded by digitally savvy, educated and urban Sudanese young adults, mostly based in the capital city, Khartoum. The community is turning to Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere and most recently, mapping as a platform for expression and communication about national change and for crisis mobilization in a place where such articulations come with harsh and heavy punishments.

“From my perspective I think it's not 'political' in its traditional parties, organizations and, ideologies, [it is] kind of 'active,'" said Khartoum-based engineer Abeer Khairy. “I think our generation is tired of the promises and started to get things done already.”

Indeed, there’s a palpable hum of urgency among leaders like Khairy and Ahmed Ali Mohamed, the founder of Khartoum Geeks. Ahmed Ali explained that once (certain wealthy and privileged) Sudanese acquired access to the Internet, they could get information about other countries who were progressing quickly.

“Nations are growing insanely in a small amount of time. It makes us hungry to see fast change here,” Khairy added. She pointed out Malaysia as a nation on which she’s kept an admiring eye.

The floods that have been devastating the nation, and especially the Khartoum region, since early August are an awesome and emblematic example of the digital activism precipitating necessary mobilization in the North African country.

Right now the UN estimates that 500,000 have been impacted by the flood and dozens are said to have died from drowning, collapsing houses or electrocution.

With a total lack of government aid in the first weeks of the crisis, and with extreme restrictions on NGOs, initiatives like Nafeer have formed, and, like Khairy noted - just got to work. (The group calls itself an initiative and not an NGO because if it was categorized as such it would be subject to the aforementioned restrictions and unable to operate.)

Nafeer is a volunteer group working together to aid families that have been affected by the heavy rains and flash floods. The grassroots operation creates calls to action and provides updates on its Twitter feed and Facebook pages, both in Arabic and English. The group also operates with the Sudan Flood Map that locates and reports the absurd amount of damage caused by the flooding and the rains in its aftermath.

The politically aware and digitally savvy clan that enabled Nafeer to mobilize so quickly and efficiently, however, has been in place for some time. Ahmed Ali explained that he sees the Khartoum-centered community driven by the desire to “change the traditional and closed view in the community by spreading technology awareness.” Sharia law is a reality in Sudan, but a lot of the nation’s young people are interested in putting the country on a different cultural path.

“Still Sudan is a big tribal country,” Ahmed Ali said, “so many customs control the people’s lifestyle and their activities.”

Khairy added that though there is much she believes needs to change in the country, there’s also much she wants to stay the same. She wants to keep the sense of closeness and family bonds.

“Technology made [us] connected to the outside world,” she acknowledges, “but at the same time we're starting to lose our identity by imitating others mindlessly.”

There’s a vibrant blogging culture in Sudan that’s only accelerating. As Dubai-based, Sudan-born engineer Mohammed Hashim Saleh elucidated, “The question is what is the other option to this government and how change could be?” Bloggers also examine Sudanese identity, and how the nation defines itself: Arabic, African, Islamic or Sudanese. Much of the violence in the country - especially in Darfur - is attributed to government directed Arab forces killing Africans. Islam, however, is by far the most prominent religion in the country, shared by people of various ethnicities.

“Sudan is not really a country at all, but many. A composite layers, like a genetic fingerprint of memories that were once fluid, but have since crystallized out from the crucible of possibility,” says the Jamal Mahjoub quote that leads the well-known blog, Wholeheartedly Sudan.

Helena Puig Larrauri, a peacebuilding practitioner who has lived in Sudan for over three years mused that Sudanese are turning to blogs to construct an alternative narrative about what’s happening in Sudan.

“Just one that tells their story, what everyday lives are like in Sudan, also as opposed to the government saying everything is fine," says Larrauri.

The Internet has become a place for expression because in Sudan, the government shut downs any movement that even hints at an uprising. Saleh said it is, putting it nicely, not advisable to head to the street and start pontificating, but that “the government isn’t targeting people who shouts in the Internet.” The government looks more at people who are starting actual movements on the ground and getting traction and followers. It’s a fine line to walk.

“The Nafeer guys….I have a lot of respect for them,” said Larrauri. It appears the Nafeer team is walking a line between voluntary public health initiative and something that could very quickly be deemed more disruptive.

“You don't know what constitutes a political act until they put you in jail.” Khairy said. Ultimately, anything that could make the government look bad is a risk.

Other groups, albeit more politically oriented ones like Girifna and Sudan Change Now, walk that line far more aggressively. An article in the Washington Post explained:

Girifna now has more than 7,000 members on its Facebook page, a YouTube channel and an online radio station. But members have been tear-gassed, beaten and tortured, the group's leaders say.

"We know they can put us in jail at any time," said co-founder Nagi Musa, 23.” Though urban-born, Girifna and Sudan Change Now both run programs in rural areas.

Despite the rise of politically savvy youth in Sudan, Saleh says Sudan is still far away from a tech revolution, some of which can be attributed to the crippling impact of U.S. sanctions, which has prohibited the export of a number of goods to Sudan, including technology. In 1993, Sudan was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism for hosting Osama bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal, and an additional trade embargo was imposed in 1997.

Platforms like Kickstarter and PayPal are prohibited. You can’t use Google Earth or Google Code. Same with any Esri product, Survey Monkey, Dropbox and Skype. And then there’s that pesky credit card problem. As Larrauri wrote in her article on the subject, “The embargo has a particular effect on anyone trying to use technology for the social good. Try buying server space or purchasing a domain name without a credit card.”

In the meantime, Saleh and Khairy are continuing to work on the Sudan Flood Map and another project, Madrastna, which translates to “our school” in Arabic. The site is an open source database that provides up-to-date information about schools in Sudan for NGOs, government bodies and anyone interested in improving the school system. They’re also in the process of establishing the Sudan 2.0 center which will introduce crisis mapping and crowd sourcing to the nation through a series of workshops, lectures and case studies.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.