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“Africa is not a country, ” and other notes from Media Party Africa

Modeled after the original Media Party in Buenos Aires, Media Party Africa was held, for the first time, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Courtesy of Media Party Africa

Omar A. Mohammed, journalist and current International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) fellow, took the stage to share how communities in Africa were using WhatsApp as it relates to news.

“That’s data from Tanzania,” he said, standing in front of a slide showing how the messaging app is more popular than Facebook in his country, then deftly squeezing in a caveat. “Africa is not a country, by the way.”


I met Omar last week at Media Party Africa, a three-day event hosted by Code For Africa and Hacks/Hackers Africa. The event brought together over 300 journalists, civic technologists and social-justice watchdogs, from 36 cities around the world, to hang out, share ideas and riff on the state of our industry.

I’m not really a fan of conferences. They give me anxiety and mentally thrust me back to middle school where I was consumed with fitting in and always worried about not being cool enough. Attendees always clique up, there’s always someone left in the corner with no one to talk to — me.

But this one, being in Cape Town, I figured even if I was in a corner, it would be in a stunning city.

I think you know where I’m going with this — it was so worth it. This year’s theme was Disruption, Democracies and Digital Media, and included speakers from ProPublica, ESPN, Buzzfeed Labs, Quartz, Huffington Post, Zeit Investigativ, Google, Jigsaw, First Draft News, the Gates Foundation, the Mozilla OpenNews Fellowships - and myself, from Vox Media.

Storytellers were curious about new technologies such as drone journalism, 360˚ and VR journalism, and chat apps. One theme that kept repeating itself was data security and verification. And, it’s a journalism conference, so there had to be at least one panel on how we as an industry can survive financially. But the through line, that thing that got us all in a room, was how do we create, fund and disseminate stories that matter.

Imagine how riveting of a speaker you have to be so folks stay focused on you and not this view.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox Media

What set Media Party Africa apart from the journalism conferences I’ve attended back home was the feeling of cooperation, of truly sharing ideas without the subtext of competition, and the pace and speed of innovation. Toby Shapshak said it best: “Innovation is better in Africa because we have lots of problems and we have to find solutions.”

Here are some highlights and resources from the event.

Five people I met at Media Party Africa who you should follow

Omar A. Mohammed: A Tanzanian journalist based in Dar es Salaam. Omar will fight to the death about his country’s beauty and his capitol city’s splendor. He shared with us WhatsApp’s impact in Africa. For example, WhatsApp was the primary platform for political trash talk during Tanzania’s last election campaign. Tulanana Bohela, a BBC Africa correspondent based in Tanazania, says the app is “our noticeboard, our pager. Any story we do, almost invariably, we would have heard of it first on WhatsApp in some group somewhere.”

Chika Oduah: A journalist with a background in anthropology and film, Chika is based in Nigeria and shared her reporting on Boko Haram and the Chibok girls. “Boko harma is our greatest fear. It is [made of] young men who don’t believe they belong in secular society.” I learned more from her 10-minute talk about the issue than what I’ve gotten from most Western news outlets.

Nasr ul Hadi: As the ICFJ’s Knight Fellow in India, Nasr works at the intersection of news, technology, digital innovation and newsroom management. He got me when his first slide on shaping the future of journalism declared : Blasphemy Ahead. His version of blasphemy is in fact what many newsroom leaders should be attempting. “There are too few publishers willing to burn down part of the newsroom and start from scratch,” he continued. “We need to build T-shaped professionals, folks that have a deep knowledge in one area but can work across many areas.” PREACH.

Deshnee Subramany: A news editor at Huffington Post South Africa, Deshnee’s passion is South African politics and revolutions. Admittedly, I wasn’t present to hear her speak but I caught up on her talk through Twitter. Here are some gems Deshnee dropped:

“We need black African women telling black African stories.”

“If you don’t associate with the people you write for [read:POC] you will not be relevant.”

“The most underserved population in South Africa are poor black people.”

“STOP HIRING ONLY WHITE MEN TO TELL STORIES FROM PEOPLE OF COLOR.”

Again. PREACH.

Catherine Gicheru: An award-winning journalist, Catherine was the first woman editor- in-chief of a newspaper in Kenya. Yes, that is right, bow down. An ICFJ Fellow with Code for Kenya, Catherine supervises teams of data journalists in Kenya. And there’s more, Catherine is part of PesaCheck, a fact checking initiative to verify numbers quoted by public officials across East Africa. “I used to freeze at the sight of numbers, but now I see them as beautiful pictures,” she said.

Smart quotes from the event

More knowledge bits are on the #meidapartyafrica hashtag on Twitter.

Lastly, here is a brilliant compilation of tools, tutorials and presentations for your rabbit hole pleasure.

Special thanks to Lauren Rabaino who got me this invite and coached me through what to share. Here’s a link to my deck, which was borrowed from her slides. And to Chris Roper and Ashlin Simpson, whose kindness and hospitality won’t be forgotten - I’m coming back soon!

For the infinitely curious - Google bunny chow.