Articles by Renee McGarry (she/her)

How the San of Southern Africa Used Digital Media as Educational and Political Tools


Philip Kreniske, The CUNY Graduate Center & Baruch College

Photography by Jesse Kipp, New York University


The term San refers to the indigenous people of southern Africa, who for thousands of years lived a nomadic lifestyle, hunting and gathering for subsistence. Some contemporary San still subsist partially on food gathered from the bush. Many others have been pushed from their traditional lands and lifestyles and now struggle to subsist earning low wages in rural areas on the edges of cattle farms or urban areas working in factories and living on the fringes of informal settlements. In the past decade the San have begun to use new digital tools to document, communicate, and represent their values and struggles. This article focuses on how San people used digital technologies to generate educational texts by transcribing and web publishing traditional oral folktales and to inject their own perspectives into critical political debates. In each of these cases digital media enabled San people to realize explicit and implicit social and political agendas. This paper focuses on select digital representations of San people by San people and explores how these examples relate to larger issues of education and globalization in the region.


Seminal scholarly work in the late 1950s portrayed the San people of Southern Africa as living the quintessential hunter-gatherer life—much as we might imagine our earliest ancestors to have done thousands of years ago. Today, there are about 100,000 San people, the majority of whom are spread across Namibia, Botswana and South Africa (Hays & Siegrühn 2005, 27). In each of these nations the San people have been economically, politically, and socially marginalized (Hays & Siegrühn 2005, 27; Hitchcock & Vinding 2004, 12-13, 19). Some contemporary San still live in remote villages throughout the Kalahari desert (Figure 1) and subsist partially on food gathered from the bush (Lee 2013, 218), while many others have been pushed from their traditional lands and lifestyles and now struggle to subsist earning low wages in rural areas on the edges of cattle farms or urban areas working in factories and living on the fringes of informal settlements (Susser 2009, 173).


Figure 1. A San Village in Nyae Nyae, Namibia

This article focuses on two ways that San people use digital technologies: first, to generate educational texts by transcribing and web publishing traditional oral folktales; and second, to inject their perspectives into political debates, as was the case when San bloggers wrote about issues of land rights and education. In each of these cases there were explicit and implicit social and political agendas that were realized through the use of narratives and digital media. Narrative is one of the oldest tools for sharing and creating knowledge (Bruner 1986, 3-44), and written narratives become physical manifestations of this knowledge. These works may indicate a new era of San activism in which San people create the educational agenda and write the historical narrative.

Historically the terms San, Khoisan, Bushmen, Basarwa, and Kwhe have all been used to refer to the diverse groups of indigenous southern African hunter-gatherers who speak related yet mutually unintelligible languages (Barnard 1992, 3-36; Suzman 2001a, 2, 55). Hitchcock, Ikeya, Biesele, and Lee (2006, 6) relate that at a meeting in Namibia in 1996, and reaffirmed at a meeting on Khoisan Identities and Cultural Heritage held in Cape Town in 1997, representatives of various San groups agreed that Khoisan be dropped in favor of two separate names, Khoe and San, and to allow the general term San to designate them externally. Furthermore, it was agreed that specific San group names, some of which are indicated in their general geographic region in Figure 2, should be employed for the various named social units (Hitchcock et al. 2006, 6). The current work focuses on the Ju|’hoansi in Namibia, the Naro in Botswana and the ǂKhomani in South Africa.



Figure 2. Map of San Groups by Region (Biesele and Hitchcock, 2011, p. 52).

The residual impact of apartheid policies in South Africa and Namibia, and more recent policies in Botswana, manifests in low literacy rates and, concurrently, few economic opportunities for the San people in these regions (Suzman 2001a, 9-13; WIMSA 2005, 2008). However, as will be explored in more detail below, the effects of such policies against the San differ vastly depending on their geo-political circumstances. For example, the Ju|’hoansi in the Nyae Nyae region live in a fairly expansive and isolated area. This isolation has made it difficult for contemporary San in the Nyae Nyae to earn a formal education, but historically this isolation has also served as a protective mechanism against the most culturally devastating aspects of the apartheid era, and more recently as a buffer against the AIDS epidemic (Susser 2009, 171-199).

The San in Namibia

The region currently known as Namibia earned its independence in 1990. From 1915 to 1990 the region, then called South-West Africa, was a mandate of South Africa and as such was subject to South Africa’s apartheid policies, which discriminated against all people of color, but were particularly pernicious for the San. For example, while other ethnic groups were allotted “homelands,” a series of policies that culminated with the Odendaal Commission’s recommendations in 1968 denied land rights to all but 2 percent of the San people in Namibia (Suzman 2001b, 85). Similarly, the San were largely excluded from formal economic and educational opportunities. In the mid-1990s Namibia began to address and remediate the impact of residual apartheid policies on the San people. In a watershed moment in 1997 at The National Workshop on African Languages in Basic Education, the Honorable Minister of Basic Education and Culture, John Mutorwa, publicly acknowledged:

In our country before Independence was achieved African languages were developed on a piecemeal basis. The result was that some languages received more attention than others and some were hardly developed at all. For example, one marginalized group of Namibian citizens, namely the Bushmen or San people, received so little attention that no education was available for them in any language except Afrikaans (cited in Brock-Utne 1997, 248).

For the San people in Namibia the legacy of these Apartheid policies persists to the present day. Namibia is a multi-cultural state with 13 recognized languages, ranking seventh among African nations with literacy rates of 91 and 94 percent for men and women respectively (UNICEF 2007). These high national literacy rates fail to capture the disparities within the nation, however. Demographics aggregated on an ethno-linguistic basis indicate the San[1] have the lowest life expectancy, the lowest income levels, and the lowest education rates in Namibia (UNDP 1998). According to the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) Report (2007-08), “this figure is so low that if the Namibian San were representative of the country as a whole, Namibia would rank between the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone at number 178 of the 180 countries ranked around the world” (13). Though Namibia may boast relatively high literacy rates, the San are a nation within a nation who by explicit or implicit policies have been denied the chance to secure an education.

The Digital Landscape in Nyae Nyae

In 1998 the Nyae Nyae conservancy was established as an autonomous San region within Namibia through the combined efforts of the government of Namibia and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These organizations cooperated with consultants, development workers and local people.[2] Located in northeastern Namibia along the Botswana border, the Nyae Nyae Conservancy spans 250 km of the Kalahari Desert. The majority of San in the Nyae Nyae are Ju|’hoansi and they maintain a somewhat traditional lifestyle, living in numerous small villages dispersed across the area and subsisting on a combination of food gathered from the bush, store bought food, and government food subsidies (Lee 2013, 218). Traditionally huts were constructed of wood and thatch—though contemporary structures often use a variety of materials, for instance in Figure 3 a plastic tarp serves as a makeshift wall.


Figure 3. A San family home in Tsumkwe, Namibia.

A series of solar and wind powered boreholes dotted across the region provides the main water supply (Biesele and Hitchcock 2013, 10, 47; Hitchcock and Vinding 2004, 13) and few huts have electric power sources. In general, electrical power is scarce, and sources that can generate power in this type of remote region such as solar panels (Figure 4), windmills, vehicles and diesel generators are rarely available to the San (Biesele and Hitchcock 2013, 47; Lee 2013, xxii).

Figure 4. Rig-up of a battery to operate lights and recharge phones, powered by solar panel. This is at a remote location Apl-pos, a Ju|’hoan village 12 km. west of Tsumkwe. Photo from Richard Lee’s personal collection.

Until recently, even Tsumkwe, the largest village and the municipal center for the region, had power for only 10 hours a day. In 2012 this changed as the Desert Research Foundation completed the Tsumkwe Energy project, installing a solar diesel hybrid energy supply system that provided power to the village for 24 hours a day (“ACP EU Tsumkwe,” n.d.; “Tsumkwe Energy” 2012). In the center of Tsumkwe, there are a series of concrete government constructed houses (Figure 5), a community center, and a primary and secondary school. The first public computers were introduced in 2008, when the Namibian Ministry of Education, with support from the Namibia Association of Norway (NAMAS), established the Captain Kxao Kxami Community Centre in Tsumkwe (“News” 2009). This center served as a local library and was equipped with a few computers connected to the Internet, which was a major accomplishment (Susser 2009, 197). However, in my experience there in 2010, the connection was quite slow and it took the better part of an hour to send a single email. These remain the only computers connected to the Internet for public use in Nyae Nyae.


Figure 5. Young man sits outside row of concrete houses in center of Tsumkwe, Namibia.

How then can the San learn and engage with digital technologies? Despite technological obstacles, some San people have embraced the limited opportunities to work with digital technologies such as word processing and blogging, using these tools as a means of thinking through local debates and documenting political struggles often related to land rights. Specific developments such as improved infrastructure, the community center with public computers and Internet access, and an activist digital education project suggest a sea change.

The Ju|’hoansi Transcription Group (JTG)

In 2002, Megan Biesele, an anthropologist and community organizer who has been working in the region since the 1970s, organized one such educational opportunity (Biesele 2009, i-vii; Biesele and Hitchcock 2013). The project focused on transcribing the recordings of Ju|’hoansi folktales and political meetings that Biesele and others had been compiling for the last four decades. Over a ten-year period, Biesele worked with approximately twenty multi-lingual Ju|’hoansi from Nyae Nyae and surrounding areas. Using laptops donated by Sony and Redbush Tea Company and solar panels donated by BP (by 2006 consistent electricity was available in Tsumkwe and the solar panels were no longer necessary), the team transcribed the recordings into both written English and Ju|’hoansi.

One of the main goals of this project was to create culturally relevant curricula for Ju|’hoansi San learners (Biesele and Hitchcock 2013). A lack of relevant curricula has emerged as one issue that may contribute to the high attrition rate of San learners from the local schools (see Figure 6; Gabototwe 2011; Kreniske 2011). Gabototwe described how in his twelve years of schooling in Botswana he learned about King Shaka and Nelson Mandela, “but not once did a teacher mention past accounts of any San community.” Another goal, according to Biesele and Hitchcock (2013), was to combine the new technology of word processing, the transcription software Elan, and audio files with the “old” technology of collaborative learning that was traditional among the Ju|’hoansi and other San” (240). As part of the project, Biesele, along with three assistants, Catherine Collett, Taesun Moon and Victoria Goodman, helped the 22 San translators learn basic computer literacy skills.


Figure 6. Curricular materials for 8th and 10th grade respectively, Tsumkwe, Namibia.

Prior to this project there were no opportunities for San in the region to gain such computer skills. The participants were so motivated by the experience that over the course of the project the transcribers initiated a transcription group, in which they began to teach local San youth computer literacy skills. Biesele and Hitchcock detailed how upon learning of the project some of the most senior members of the community emerged from their more isolated villages and spent weeks helping the young transcribers decode aged audio files. The JTG bridged generations, creating a context of shared purpose where youth trainees, the relatively young transcribers, and the elderly members of the community generated a text that served as an archive of oral folktales and a useful tool for future Ju|’hoansi learners.

Culturally relevant texts are particularly useful for developing readers from underrepresented groups (Hale 2001, 111-152; Hillard 1992, 370-77; Lee 1995, 357-381; Lee 2012, 348-355). Students often struggle to connect and interpret traditional textbook materials that bear little relevance to their daily lives. The challenge becomes two-fold: a student must interpret the words and learn about the foreign context presented in the material. Relevant texts give learners the opportunity to call upon their semantic, procedural and conceptual understanding of the world, generally referred to as prior knowledge, to support their developing reading skills (Wolf 2008). For example, San students in Nyae Nyae have a rich understanding of the local flora and fauna. A text about local plants and animals would allow for these students to develop their reading skills while they draw on their past experiences and interpret the text. Considering the thirteen recognized languages in Namibia, providing each group of learners with culturally relevant materials is a great challenge. As noted earlier, the San are one group whose educational needs have been largely neglected. The compilation of Ju|’hoan folktales was created explicitly to meet this need, and is appropriately titled Ju|’haon Folktales: Transcriptions and English Translations: A Literacy Primer by and for Youth and Adults of the Ju|’hoan Community (Biesele 2009).

Furthermore, the compilation produced by the transcription project served as one of the few archival and historical records of Ju|’hoan folktales. The process of transcribing was an occasion for intergenerational communication, involving the development of young trainees’ computer literacy in collaboration with the elders’ unique language comprehension skills. In the print and web published text, traditional values of collaboration and practices of storytelling were integrated with digital literacy and community organizing to produce a tool for future educational and cultural purposes.

The published book itself is an impressive product, but perhaps the most important contribution of this community-based educational initiative was the intergenerational collaboration developed with and by the local participants and the genesis of a core group of skilled San people who continued to produce texts in varied digital and print media. At least one member of the JTG, Tsamkxao Fanni Cwi, continued working on Ju|’hoan – English translations. In collaboration with Kerry Jones, Cwi recently published the Ju|’hoan Children’s Picture Dictionary (2014), a culturally relevant text that Ju|’hoan can use to develop their literacy skills. The digital translation and word processing skills learned by these San people allowed them to take an active role in creating culturally relevant educational materials. In light of the years of exclusion from the educational system during the apartheid era, the creation of Ju|’hoansi educational texts stands as a major political statement and accomplishment. Both Fanni Cwi and another JTG member, Beesa Crystal Bo would also join the The Kalahari Peoples Network (KPN), a community-based educational initiative that grew into a rich tool for digital communication and community activism.

San Bloggers

Issues of San representation have long been a topic of academic interest and debate (Barnard, 2007; Hitchcock, et al. 2006, 1-7). In popular culture from films to websites the San people are typically exhibited in their traditional garb and in some cases even listed as attractions alongside exotic animals (Cooper 2013; “Extreme Namibia” 2013; “San in Kruger Park” n.d.; The Gods Must Be Crazy 1984). However, digital representations—like printed texts—authored by San people are scarce.

The KPN is a unique example of a site where San people wrote and posted their own perspectives on current issues and values. Founded in 2008 by a group of activists and academics affiliated with the Kalahari Peoples Fund (a small non-profit based in Austin, Texas and founded in the 1970’s), KPN’s mission was to provide a network for exchange of ideas and information between Kalahari communities and individuals across Southern Africa (“About” n.d.).

In 2011, KPN held a twelve-day course in !Khwa ttu, a San educational and cultural center near Cape Town. The word !Khwa ttu means water or water pan in the no longer spoken San language |Xam (Staehelin 2002). |Xam also provides the motto for the South African coat of arms, !ke e: /xarra//ke, literally meaning “diverse peoples unite” (Government Communication and Information System 2000; Figure 7). Interestingly, this motto might also be appropriate for !Khwa ttu and KPN, two organizations that worked to unify San people from across the region. Furthermore, both !Khwa ttu and KPN sought to empower San people with the technical skills to represent their own communities and values.




Figure 7. South African Coat of Arms.

Established through the combination of efforts by local San organizers and a small Swiss charitable organization, UBUNTU Foundation, !Khwa ttu’s mandate reads, “that we, the San, must gain control over our own image and presence in the tourism industry. We strive to acquire the skills for income generating activities and to be proactive in preventing exploitation of our less educated San relatives” (“Mission” n.d.). Considering that the San groups exist as disparate entities spread across southern Africa—many like the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae Namibia live in remote regions—this appears to be a weighty and possibly problematic task. For instance, it is unlikely that the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae Namibia would want the mainly ǂKhomani San in !Kwa ttu to intervene on their behalf. The KPN was founded in part to address such challenging issues and to develop a communication and support network run by San and for San people with representatives from a variety of groups.

The !Khwa ttu workshop and the subsequent KPN project sought to unite San from across the region and to serve as “a virtual space for networking and exchange of information among contemporary Kalahari communities and individuals…” and as a space for “San and other indigenous Kalahari dwellers to speak in their own voices to each other and to interested people outside their communities (“About” n.d.). As will be explored below, some of the KPN editors expanded their work beyond the San people, broadening their network and developing connections with international indigenous rights groups.

The immediate goal of the KPN training course was to identify and prepare ten San deputy editors from across the region (“Education” 2011). One editor, Jobe Gabototwe, would later blog about this formative experience, writing:

As a young boy growing up in the small village of Kedia in central Botswana I believed that my people, the San (also known as Basarwa or Bushmen) were only to be found in my country. All people coming from Namibia, I, and all around me, used to address as ‘Hereros.’ I was proven wrong when I enrolled in the !Khwa ttu Training Programme for Trainee Guides (2011).

Gabototwe noted that the attendees were San from different cultural, linguistic, and geographic regions including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia.
A narrative analysis approach based on the methods of values analysis (Daiute 2004,111-135; Daiute 2014, 68-113; Ninkovic 2012) was used to examine over 30 blog posts written by two San deputy editors and consistent contributors, Magdelena Lucas and Job Morris. A values analysis is useful for exploring how narrators position themselves in relation to particular contexts. For example, Lucas often used her posts to express the value that earning an education was important especially for San people. Lucas’s position directly contests the position communicated by the apartheid state that expressed its values that education was not important for the San people through a series of discriminatory legislation. The analysis—explored in detail below—showed how Lucas and Morris used their blog posts to expound on the value of education and debate issues such as the displacement of San people and the uses of cultural tourism in their communities.

Both deputy editors wrote about their own life journeys and academic accomplishments. However, their emphases differed. While Lucas frequently described the personal importance of specific internships and educational accomplishments, Morris more often wrestled with issues of San leadership and the San peoples’ struggles with local and global interests and powers. Through their writing, these two San bloggers struggled to make sense of how they and their communities fit into the changing local and global context. Literary theorists (Berthoff & Stephens 1988; Emig 1977, 122-128; Fulwiler 1983, 122-133) and social scientists have shown how the act of writing is a tool for sense-making (Daiute & Nelson 1997, 207-216; Lucic 2013, 434-439). Sense-making often involves asking questions and working through complex dilemmas. For example, both Morris and Lucas used their writing to explore the positive and negative effects of cultural tourism for the San people. Through writing about this question, each blogger formulated a clearer position on the role they thought cultural tourism should play in their respective communities.

One way to make sense of questions is to talk about them. However, the spoken word is evanescent, while written words are thoughts manifested in physical space (Ong [1982] 2002, 77-114)—on paper or on a computer screen, or, if posted on the Internet, possibly on many screens. As compared to oral communication, reading the words in physical form, and therefore thinking about what one has written, makes the act of writing a distinct tool for sense-making. Writing requires high levels of cognitive and emotional effort, and it is in this process of sorting out how best to explain a set of thoughts or emotions to a specific audience that sense-making occurs. Furthermore, writing in an interactive medium like a blog allows for an active audience and such interaction has been shown to motivate writers (Boniel-Nissim & Barak 2011,333-341; Ducate & Lomicka 2008, 9-28; Sosnowy 2013, 80-86). Lucas and Morris were likely motivated by the potential to interact with a diverse audience as they used the blog to hone their positions and to simultaneously draw attention to key social, political and historical issues in their communities.

Their writings reflect both the similarities shared across San groups and also the different struggles each group faced. Lucas, a ǂKhomani, was born in Ashkam, a town in South Africa near the Botswana-Namibia border. For Lucas, education was of central importance and she demonstrated this by focusing her posts on telling the story of her own journey in contrast to that of her father’s experience during the apartheid regime. Whereas, Morris, a Naro from Botswana, blogged about issues of land rights focusing on large-scale displacement policies that have affected the San in Botswana for the past twenty years.

The history and current circumstances of the ǂKhomani San are quite different from those of the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae, who still speak their native language and subsist at least partially from food gathered from the bush. Lucas wrote that she learned Afrikaans as a first language and never learned her ancestral San language, N/u, because “farmers and old governments took our land and forbade us to use our own language” (Lucas 2011a, Figure 8).



Figure 8. Screenshot of “Cultural Tourism – a Personal View” By Magdalena Lucas.

The story of Lucas and her father reflects that of many ǂKhomani in South Africa who were kept from learning their native language and often denied the opportunity to attend formal schooling. These policies were so destructive that there are no surviving speakers of the N/u language (Barnard 1992, 88-90). In 1994, South Africa earned independence from the white minority, as voters in the first non-racial democratic elections selected the African National Congress (ANC) as the nation’s governing party. Although no San languages were included in the 11 official languages of South Africa, this massive political shift allowed for young San people, like Lucas, to be the first in their families to attend school and earn an education. Furthermore, initiatives such as those by KPN and the project at the resources center at !Khwa ttu provided Lucas with additional support as she developed her intellectual and technical skills.

To fully appreciate the importance of Lucas’s posts we need to consider not only the history of apartheid in southern Africa but also the continuing marginalization that the San people across the region endure (Suzman 2001b, 7-18, 38-40). Lucas’s (2010) story about her educational journey serves as an example of San resiliency in spite of a history of exclusion from formal educational institutions. Lucas described growing up with an alcoholic father who worked on a local “white” farm and a mother who valued education. Despite struggling to find basic necessities, Lucas persevered and graduated from grade 12. The post then shifts to the present, with Lucas expressing her excitement about being accepted into a nine-month training course at !Khwa ttu where she hoped to “learn about the past and the present of all the San groups that live in southern Africa.” In the final sentence of her post, Lucas wrote that she wanted “to use the knowledge and experience that she gained from the training wherever she will be lucky to get a job.” For Lucas, it was most important that this training lead to a job.

Over the nine-month tour guide training course Lucas posted about her experiences at !Khwa ttu and she also posted about the two-week Kalahari Peoples Network training mentioned above. In part through the connections and skills developed in these trainings Lucas landed a museum curator internship with Iziko Museums in Cape Town (Newsflash 2011-12). Following nearly two years of these trainings and internships, Lucas found herself again unemployed. Interestingly, she did not forsake the importance of education, but instead wrote a post titled Education is Power (2011b). In this post, Lucas initially acknowledged some of the financial obstacles stopping many San from enrolling in educational programs. She then launched into a detailed account of how her community had been battling for a civic project to install electricity and housing:

We also need educated San people to speak out for our rights as South African citizens; For example, we don’t have electricity on our farm. The people of Andriesvale in the southern Kalahari, where a lot of ǂKhomani families live, have told the municipality that they want houses. However, each year the municipality postpones the construction of houses. Each year, the government has given money for development but nothing has happened in our community. The community members wanted to know where the money went. Well, the municipality told us that it went back where it came from (Lucas 2011b).

In this statement, Lucas argued that had there been more educated community members they could have articulated the town’s position and this project would not have been abandoned. “Yes,” she continued, “We are living far away in the Kalahari but that doesn’t mean that the world can ignore us. We need our own lawyers, teachers and our representatives at the municipalities. It’s about time that we, the San take on challenges and change our circumstances.” Lucas described how the lack of advocacy allowed the local government to ignore the needs of her community. She understood that for this public project to recommence there needed to be educated San people who could fight the legal battles and voice their position at the municipal level.

Many of the barriers to San securing an education are related to decades of systematic oppression. There are also tensions between the San people’s traditional lifestyle and the current logistical realities of schooling. Lucas, for example, described spending much of her childhood living in a dormitory near the Ashkam primary school and then moving 90km further away to her secondary school in Rietfontein. Lucas’s story highlights the differences between her context and that of other San groups like the Ju|’hoansi in Nyae Nyae, Namibia. In Nyae Nyae, tensions between traditional lifestyles and the logistical demands of schooling are even more pronounced. Limited transportation is an issue of critical concern to many local residents (Hays 2002, 132; Kreniske 2011).

Many villages can only be reached using four-wheel drive vehicles, as throughout the Nyae Nyae only a few roads are paved and there is no formal public transportation system. Hardly any San have access to vehicles and therefore hitchhiking and walking are the only options. These circumstances are challenging enough for an average adult, but for a child traveling hundreds of kilometers from their village to their school, the lack of transport is often an insurmountable obstacle. These obstacles force children to choose between living with their families and boarding at school. Researchers have documented some of the struggles that San people face in earning an education (Biesele & Hitchcock 2013, 233-44; Kreniske 2011; Hays 2002, 123-139). However, Lucas’s posts present a first-hand account of the struggles that many San face as they attempt to earn a formal education.

Perhaps Lucas could and would have written about these issues in print. However, there is something special about writing in digital media and specifically posting on the Internet that inspires individuals to inject themselves into public debates, as Yochai Benkler has argued. According to Benkler:

Individuals become less passive, and thus more engaged observers of social spaces that could potentially become subjects for political conversation; they become more engaged participants in the debates about their observations. The various formats of the networked public sphere provide anyone with an outlet to speak, to inquire, to investigate, without need to access the resources of a major media organization (Benkler 2006, 11).

For Lucas the outlet was the KPN blog, and her posts about earning an education functioned as social and political acts. The KPN blog provided a medium for Lucas to enter a conversation that has long revolved around San peoples’ inability to earn an education that rarely included San voices. Her story provides a narrative that counters this negative perception of the San. With her posts Lucas makes a political statement and shows how San can succeed within the current educational system in spite of the many obstacles they may face.

Morris, a Naro San who grew up in D’Kar Botswana, also used his blog posts to engage in social and political debates. In one post, Morris directly addressed cultural tourism by weighing the pros and cons of practices such as dressing in traditional garb and showing tourists the traditional way of life (2011a). Morris argued that in some ways cultural tourism encouraged San people to remember their traditional ways and counter what he described as “cultural pollution,” which occurs when San people adopt a “foreign/western way of life” (Morris 2011a, Figure 9). However, he noted the economic returns from cultural tourism were minimal. Further, Morris explained that the problem with cultural tourism was that it distracts young people from pursuing other potentially rewarding career paths. He wrote that cultural tourism “diverts the young people from school and distracts them from a better future. It creates only seasonal means of employment and has no job security, no health care, low benefits and no protective organization.” Morris worried that cultural tourism too often exploited the San—promising only minor compensation and few broader benefits. Morris explained that the San still value and respect their traditional culture, but that they “do not live a traditional lifestyle on a daily basis.”



Figure 9. Screenshot of “Cultural Tourism – Good or Bad?” By Job Morris.

A related post by Morris revolved around destruction of the environment and the displacement of the San from their traditional lands. Morris wrote: “Mother Earth is a source of life for the San and their very existence as a people is embedded in how they survive in that land…[and] for other people to take away their precious land is more like killing the San.”

This statement may appear to be figurative, however according to Lee (2013, 218) it is literally true. Lee described how contemporary San in the Nyae Nyae still forage nearly half of their sustenance from the Kalahari, and that without these natural sources many San would live in complete destitution, facing near starvation. In his post, Morris also connected the figurative and emotional with the practical uses of the land by describing the practice of foraging for tubers. After digging up a tuber the San rebury the root so the tuber can grow again “and be a resource to others as well.” Morris used this post to illustrate one way that contemporary San still subsist on foods foraged from the bush using traditional practices.

Given the continued importance of foraging for food, a critical struggle for many San groups across the region, from the early twentieth century to the present moment, concerns challenges to their land rights. At times these challenges arrived in the form of military force (Suzman, 2001a), political mandates (“Bushmen” n.d.), or in a less dramatic, but still destructive guise, as cattle herding squatters (Odendaal 2013). Morris used a number of blog posts to call for regional leadership structures that he and his fellow San could organize with the goal of securing San land rights in Southern Africa. One similar value shared across many San groups is an egalitarian—and to an outsider enigmatic—leadership system (Lee 2013, 121-124). Morris described this leadership system as “everyone can lead but not anyone can lead” (2012a). He then described his experiences with leadership and the decision making process. A leader:

[…] invites his people around the fire and they establish dialogue about the matters that have aroused in the clan/community. Around the fire, the leader invites his people to talk about the things that should be done and it is where healing takes place. He invites them to touch upon their joys and sorrows and around the fire, they tell stories. These are the folklores or tails that have been passed on to them by the generations before them and they can be seen on the rock art that has existed through many lifetimes.

This post illustrates the tensions between the similarities and the distinct cultural practices of different San groups. Morris is attempting to marshal the images of rock art to support a narrative of unified San identity. Notably, only the San of South Africa have a history of creating rock art. As Morris described, many San groups did traditionally use similar leadership systems that emphasized egalitarian community-based discussions and decision-making that some scholars have referred to as direct democracy (Biesele & Hitchcock 2013). With this and other posts Morris attempted to amalgamate the San people into a unified political force. For Morris, the project of a unified San identity extended well beyond the proverbial campfire.

Morris’s posts reflected the work he was doing to actively share the story of the San people in international forums. Morris seemed to understand the power of presenting a unified San identity as he attempted to organize regional leadership and develop connections with international indigenous rights activists. In D’Kar, Morris collaborated primarily with the Kuru Family of Organizations which supported him as he blogged and submitted proposals to international conferences. In 2011, Morris presented the case of the San of Botswana to the 10th United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York. Morris used the forum and his subsequent blog post to focus on issues of forceful relocation in Botswana, writing:

Numerous San communities were relocated from their Ancestral Lands as in the recent CKGR (Central Kalahari Game Reserve) case. Some San were forced to move in the name of Development and some died in the name of development. There in CKGR, because of the forced relocation, their livelihood, culture and values are slowly diminishing. They have a small land for a vast number of people. (2011b)

Morris then called attention to Botswana’s refusal to ratify ILO Convention 169, which would officially eliminate the colonialist doctrine of discovery (Lee 2012), and in the words of Morris, “give us our right to own land that we have traditionally occupied from time immemorial and protect our languages, cultures, and heritage. This to us is development” (2011b). Lucas and Morris both envisioned educated San voicing their respective struggles in local and international forums. With his speech at the UN, Morris took a leadership role on a global stage for the rights of San people and also for indigenous people across the globe. Morris concluded by calling on other “indigenous Peoples who have made it” to “empower us, show us, guide us, strengthen us, motivate us and increase our capacities based on your experiences so that we can become more than just how other societies perceive us, but also people who are sustainable and independent.” As Morris delivered this closing statement he seemed acutely aware of the international audience of indigenous people and activists. Sharing the story of the San, and specifically those who were relocated from the CKGR in Botswana, certainly drew international attention to issues of San land rights. Gaining this attention was the product of efforts by Morris and by Kuru and others who supported him along his journey.

However, there was an inherent tension between Morris’s depiction of the campfire community meeting and his solo presentation at the UN. Where in his speech was there room for egalitarian discussion that he previously noted as a key characteristic of San decision-making and leadership? In theory the KPN was founded in an attempt to create a network for San people and activists throughout southern Africa to communicate. Morris’s posts on the KPN blog had the potential to function as a space for discussion, with interested San people from across the region commenting on his ideas for action or perhaps contributing to, or even editing the script for his speech.

Despite his prolific posting and international speeches, Morris received few comments on his posts, and the comments he did receive were rarely written by fellow San. One reply to Morris’s UN address was posted by Eugene Skeef, a South African born percussionist and activist residing in the UK since the 1980s, who wrote, “Thanks for a very moving account. We all need to pull together to realize the vision of your statement.”[3] In general, comments on the KPN site were limited, with Morris and Jobe Gabototwe being the most active commenters—often adding positive comments to fellow bloggers’ posts.

Based on the mission statement, the intended audience of the KPN blog was other San people, academics, activists, and policymakers interested in indigenous issues. Likely reasons for the lack of comments from other San people include the aforementioned relative isolation of many San communities, combined with the lack of material means such as computers and reliable Internet connections. Additionally, the long history of exclusion from traditional educational systems and resulting low literacy rates precluded many San people from participating in any written media.

Another possible factor leading to the low number of comments on the KPN was that the blog required users to login or register to leave a comment. No doubt this login requirement was intended to limit advertisers and other web crawlers who take advantage of many blogs’ comment sections as a space to promote unrelated products and sites. In my experience as an administrator for a number of blogs, the majority of comments are often from advertisers, and legitimate comments are relatively rare. Requiring a login can discourage the aforementioned ne’er-do-wells but may also limit contributions from potential casual commenters and less savvy Internet users. While academics and activists posted some comments, there were no comments posted by San people, aside from the comments posted by San deputy editors like Morris, Lucas, and Gabototwe. The lack of comments makes it difficult to determine who was in fact reading the KPN blog.[4] Despite the few comments, or the larger question of determining who reads what on any particular website, the content produced on KPN remains a valuable resource for academics, activists, and policymakers.

Over the two years that Morris and Lucas posted on KPN, they, along with the other deputy editors, created a rich database of folk stories, testimonials, and archival records both for San people and by San people. The act of blogging may have encouraged them to “observe the social environments through new eyes—the eyes of someone who could actually inject a thought, a criticism, or a concern into the public debate” (Benkler 2006, 11). Using their blog posts, Lucas and Morris worked through challenging issues and formulated critical positions on controversial topics such as the value of and access to an education, the pros and cons of cultural tourism, and the large-scale displacement of San peoples in Botswana. At least in part, it was through his blogging that Morris nurtured his leadership skills and honed the positions that he would eventually present at the United Nations. But even before Morris arrived at the UN, his words could reach activists across the globe. Writing online made the KPN bloggers’ work accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. As Daiute (2013) notes, “the digital world makes conflicts, inequalities, and abuses worldwide visible to all with access not only to personal computers but also to public displays, news and conversation” (65). These bloggers created an active network for documenting their experiences and critiquing the policies of the regional states.

The site remains a rich resource featuring opinions from San people depicting their understanding of local and global issues, although in 2012 KPN’s funding dried up and the site is presently an inactive archive. If we understand blogging as a key aspect of Lucas’s and Morris’s development as community activists and global advocates, then it seems imperative to continue to support San bloggers. KPF, the agency that founded KPN, remains open to donations for similar initiatives. One such initiative could be to follow Morris’s recommendation and work with San people to establish a sustainable and independent site where San people could continue to develop as activists while sharing their struggles and triumphs in coordinating future projects.

Concluding Thoughts

The Kalahari is a harsh environment for humans to live: water is scarce; nubby plants dot a sandy landscape that seems to extend for infinity; animals—some of them large and dangerous—migrate over great distances; while the temperature fluctuates from freezing at night to sweltering during the day. In spite of these apparent ecological challenges, the San people, using their expansive knowledge of the environment, have thrived on this land for thousands of years. In recent decades, the increasing interconnectedness of the global and the local, in part due to technological advances, has presented new challenges and opportunities for the San. Like many across the globe, the San have begun to use new digital tools to document, communicate, and represent their values and struggles.

In Nyae Nyae, the Ju|’hoansi Transcription Group created one of the first published works of San folktales. In this project, the San combined the traditional practice of storytelling with computer literacy and transcribing tools. The project bridged generational gaps as older community members were called in to help decipher some of the recordings and younger San became apprentices to the trained transcribers—learning basic computer literacy skills along the way. The digital tools enabled a grass roots team of linguists and locals to create a desperately needed culturally relevant text. The book, also published on the web, is not only an archive of stories that might otherwise have been lost to future generations, but also a relevant pedagogical tool that can be leveraged to support developing Ju|’hoansi readers. The work illustrates a growing sense of the value of education for and within the Ju|’hoansi community.

Similarly, the KPN blog was often used as a forum to discuss the impediments to, and to tout the importance of earning an education for San people across the region. The blog was also a space for the deputy editors to work through concepts of leadership and articulate their perspectives on community issues, such as the struggles against international diamond corporations which, with the help of the government of Botswana, pushed many San from their lands. After years of legal battles the San have begun to return to their lands in Botswana, but this conflict is far from resolved, nor are such conflicts isolated to Botswana. In 2010 in Namibia, Herero crossed the border from Botswana and settled on San owned lands in Nyae Nyae Conservancy (Biesele 2010). In part because the local San have little political influence, they have not been able to extradite these illegal squatters who strain the areas’ already limited water, land, and educational resources. By using digital tools, like the KPN blog, in combination with speeches at international conferences and legal battles at home, the San have been able to push back and gain some recognition of their land rights.

Facilitated by digital tools, the transcription group created culturally relevant texts and the San bloggers developed critical social and political commentary. However, it remains to be seen what the lasting effects of these projects will be. A series of questions remain unanswered: Will the Ju|’hoan Children’s dictionary be the last work translated, or will it be just the second in a litany of educational texts? Does the lack of comments on the KPN blog by other San mean that the work of the KPN bloggers went largely unnoticed? Or does the number of comments written by the KPN deputy editors indicate that San people—when they can get access—will embrace digital tools and use them to develop cohesive inter and intra group activist networks? What is known is that these works suggest a great potential for the uses of digital technology by underrepresented peoples, and stand as rare examples of texts—digital or print—about San, by San, and for the San. Especially for people like the San who have been represented and misrepresented in innumerable ways, writing about their values and struggles is a political act, and the San bloggers used their posts to construct a powerful new narrative for the San of the modern era.


I would like to thank Richard Lee and Megan Biesele for their support in the field and their comments on the manuscript.


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Barnard, Alan. 2007. Anthropology and the Bushman. Oxford: Berg. OCLC 560526388.

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Biesele, Megan. 2010, November. San Leadership in Nyae Nyae, Namibia, and the Pastoral Invasions of 1991 and 2009. Paper presented at the meeting of American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, LA.

Biesele, Megan, and Robert K. Hitchcock. 2013. The Ju|’hoan San of Nyae Nyae and Namibian Independence: Development, Democracy, and Indigenous Voices in Southern Africa. New York: Berghahn Books. OCLC 609529125.

Boniel-Nissim, Meyran, and Azy Barak. 2013. “The Therapeutic Value of Adolescents’ Blogging About Social–Emotional Difficulties.” Psychological Services. 10 (3): 333-341. OCLC 4815019024.

Brock-Utne, Birgit. 1997. “The Language Question in Namibian Schools”. International Review of Education/Internationale Zeitschrift Fuer Erziehungswissenschaft/Revue Internationale De L’Education. 43 (2-3): 241-60. ISSN 0020-8566.

Cooper, Chloe. 2013. “A Kalahari Bushman Experience at Haina Lodge.” Africa Geographic (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

Cwi, T. F. and K.L. Jones, 2014. Ju|’hoan Children’s Picture Dictionary: Tsumkwe Dialect. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. OCLC 871319304.

Daiute, Colette. 2004. “Creative use of Cultural Genres.” In C. Daiute & C. Lightfoot (Eds.) Narrative Analysis: Studying the Development of Individuals in Society, 111 – 135. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. OCLC 52559098.

Ibid. 2013. “Educational Uses of the Digital World for Human Development.” Learning Landscapes. 6(2): 63-83.

Ibid. (2014). Narrative Inquiry: A Dynamic Approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. OCLC 835373980.

Daiute, Colette, and Katherine Nelson. 1997. “Making Sense of the Sense-Making Function of Narrative Evaluation.” Journal of Narrative and Life History. 7 (1/4): 207-216. OCLC 200360718.

Desert Research Foundation of Namibia. “ACP EU Tsumkwe Energy.” (accessed October 10, 2014).

Ducate, Lara C., and Lara L. Lomicka. 2008. “Adventures in the Blogosphere: from Blog Readers to Blog Writers.” Computer Assisted Language Learning. 21 (1): 9-28. OCLC 4901605147.

Emig, Janet. 1977. Writing as a Mode of Learning. College Composition and Communication. 28 (2): 122-128. OCLC 425033720.

Gabototwe, Jobe. 2011. “The |Xam and the San youth of today.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed August 28, 2014).

Hale, Janice E. 2001. Learning While Black: Creating Educational Excellence for African American Children, 111-152. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. OCLC 45821018.

Lee, Richard B. 2013. The Dobe Ju|’hoansi. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. OCLC 801223566.

Fulwiler, Toby. 1983. “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place.” fforum.4(2): 122-133. Retrieved from (accessed 9/18/2014).

Hathaway, Jay. 2014. “NPR Pulled a Brilliant April Fools’ Prank On People Who Don’t Read.” Gawker. (accessed April 4, 2014).

Government Communications and Information System. 2000. “The National Coat of Arms.” South African National Symbols and Heritage. (Accessed August 22, 2014)

Hays, Jennifer. 2002. “‘We should learn as we go ahead’: Finding the way forward for Nyae Nyae Village Schools Project.” Perspectives in Education, 20 (1): 123-139. OCLC 775995239.

Hays, Jennifer, and Amanda Siegrühn. 2005. “Education and the San of Southern Africa.” Indigenous Affairs. (1): 26-34. OCLC 775150286.

Hilliard, Asa G., III. 1992. “Behavioral Style, Culture, and Teaching and Learning.” Journal of Negro Education. 61 (3): 370-77. OCLC 425478076.

Hitchcock, Robert K., and Diana Vinding. 2004. Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Southern Africa. Copenhagen: IWGIA. OCLC 57255814.

Kalahari Peoples Network. “About the Site.” (accessed February 12, 2014).

Ibid. 2011. “Education: Kalahari Peoples Network Workshop.” (accessed February 12, 2014).

Kreniske, Philip. 2011. “Education in Nyae Nyae.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 1, 2014).

Kruger Park. “San.” (accessed March 1, 2014).

ǂ Khomani San. “History of the San.” (accessed March 3, 2014).

!Khwa ttu. “Newsflash: Summer 2011/12.” (accessed March 10, 2014).

Lee, Carol D. 1995. “Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation.” Journal of Black Psychology. 21 (4): 357-381. OCLC 197886943.

Ibid. 2012. “Conceptualizing Cultural and Racialized Process in Learning.” Human Development. 55 (5-6): 348-355. OCLC 4939164484.

Lee, Richard B. 2013. The Dobe Ju|’hoansi, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. OCLC 801223566.

Ibid. 2012. “Historic day for the San.” The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. (accessed March 5, 2014).

Lee, Richard, B., Robert Hitchcock and Megan Biesele. 2002. “Foragers to First Peoples: The Kalahari San Today.” Cultural Survival Quarterly 26.1.

Lucas, Magdalena. 2010. “New Writing: Life is Worth Living…” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2011a. “Cultural Tourism – a Personal View.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2011b. “Education is Power.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

Lucić, Luka. 2013. “Use of evaluative devices by youth for sense-making of culturally diverse interpersonal interactions”. International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 37 (4): 434-449. OCLC 5108856615.

Morris, Job. 2011a. “Cultural Tourism—good or bad?.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2011b. “Statement of San issues at UN.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ibid. 2012. “Leadership of the San.” Kalahari Peoples Network (blog). (accessed March 15, 2014).

News. “News: Captain Kxao Kxami Community Centre, Tsumkwe”. August, 2009. (accessed August 27, 2014).

Namibia Tourism Board. “Extreme Namibia—The World’s First People.” (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ninkovic, M. 2012. Changing the Subject: Human Resource Management in Post

Socialist Workplaces. PhD Diss. The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Odendaal, Willems. 2013. “Land Laws Failing the San.” The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. (accessed March 5, 2014).

Ong, Walter J. [1982] 2002. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge. OCLC 49874897.

Simpson, John. 2011. “The Kalahari Bushmen are Home Again.” The Guardian, December 13. (accessed March 15, 2014).

Sosnowy, Collette. 2013. Blogging Chronic Illness and Negotiating Patient-hood: Online Narratives of Women with MS. PhD diss. Graduate Center, City University of New York. OCLC 868831972.

Staehelin, Irene. 2002. “!Khwa ttu: San Culture & Education Centre.” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Spring. (accessed August 22, 2014).

Susser, Ida. 2009. AIDS, Sex, and Culture: Global Politics and Survival in Southern Africa. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. OCLC 244598965.

Survival International. “Bushmen.” (accessed February 27, 2014).

Suzman, James. 2001a. Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre, Report no. 1. OCLC 50630191.

Ibid. 2001b. Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa. Windhoek: Legal Assistance Centre, Report no. 5. OCLC 50630191.

Tsumkwe Energy Project. 2012. “Tsunkwe Energy.” (accessed October 3, 2014).

UNICEF. 2009. The State of the World’s Children: Special Edition. New York, NY: United Nations Children’s Fund. OCLC 670238348.

United Nations Development Programme. 1998. Namibia Human Development Report 1998.

Windhoek: UNDP. OCLC 47075453.

Wolf, Maryanne, and Catherine J. Stoodley. 2008. Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: Harper Perennial. OCLC 191932021.

Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa. 2005. Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA): report on activities April 2004 to March 2005. Windhoek: WIMSA. OCLC 69992992.

Ibid. 2008. Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA): report on activities April 2007 to March 2008. Windhoek: WIMSA.

[1] There are at least 10 distinct San populations in Namibia, the largest five in order are Hai//om, Ju|’hoansi, !Xun, Kwhe, Naro, and =Au//eisi (Biesele & Hitchcock 2011, 6)

[2] For a more complete history of these events see Biesele & Hitchcock, 2011, 198-227.

[3] Skeef confirmed he wrote this comment via personal communication to the author on September 19, 2014.

[4] National Public Radio (NPR) demonstrated with a recent April Fools’ Day prank that many people comment on articles they have not actually read, and therefore the number of comments on any web article is not necessarily equal to the number of people who actually read a particular article (Hathaway 2014).



About the Author and Photographer

Philip Kreniske is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Human Development Psychology Program at the Graduate Center and a Writing Fellow at Baruch College. He is an editor for theSociety for the Teaching of Psychology Graduate Student Teaching Association (GSTA) blog and he maintains a personal blog on OpenCUNY. Philip’s research focuses on the intersection of technology and education with a particular emphasis on expressive writing in digital contexts. His dissertation explores how diverse college freshmen used interactive writing media as a tool to reflect on their transition to college and what difference this made in terms of their social relational writing and academic achievement.

Jesse Kipp is a travel writer,photographer, and videographer, with a master’s degree in journalism from NYU.

Teaching Online Journals in Tanzania: Knowledge Production and the Digital Divide


Tom Fisher



While online academic journals have theoretically made a vast amount of material available to academics and students at institutions of all kinds, there is a great deal of variation in their use. This article explores issues of access to these materials in African universities, arguing that it is not infrastructure but rather lack of skills that hampers access. It is based on a series of workshops taught to students at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), a large new private university. This article argues for the importance of accessing online journals for the developing the research culture of an institution such as SAUT. Journal articles are almost entirely produced in the global North, yet if access is taught in the context of critically engaging with these discourses, this can be of great benefit to the South. It is not a question of encouraging the students to accept the authority of these sources; rather, they can be used to illustrate an academic debate and broaden students’ exposure to different paradigms and epistemologies. Similarly, by confronting the practicalities of teaching the workshops within the local infrastructure of SAUT, the workshops engaged with the existing strategies used by students in dealing with the limitations to Internet access in Tanzania. Through using the students’ own experiences of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the workshops illustrated how making use of their strategies not only increased the relevance of the workshops, but also smoothed many of the practical pitfalls of teaching in Tanzania.


An increasing amount of peer-reviewed academic literature is available online. This availability has the potential to help level the playing field between the resources available to elite research-led institutions and those institutions with less of a developed research culture. Accessing these resources online has become an essential skill for academics and students at many institutions, but many—particularly in the global South—are not in a position to take advantage of the opportunities provided to them. In the case of Africa, international schemes have made large numbers of academic journals available to institutions for free or at a significantly reduced cost. Yet usage rates by staff and students remain very low, particularly outside of the elite African institutions. One of the primary reasons for this is that staff and students lack the knowledge of what materials and available to them, and they do not have the skills to access the materials.

This article is based on my experience teaching at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. SAUT is a large, secular, private university, owned and operated by the Catholic Church. SAUT is one of the largest examples of the new private universities that have emerged since the liberalization of Tanzania’s higher education sector in the late 1990s. While playing an increasingly important role in educating Tanzanians, these universities have yet to develop a strong research culture. They stand in contrast to the research-centered elite public institutions such as the University of Dar es Salaam. Working alongside a colleague, Stephen Kerr, we developed and taught a series of workshops on accessing online journals through JSTOR and publishers’ websites. These workshops were designed for postgraduate students in a variety of disciplines across the social sciences and humanities, including history, mass communication, and linguistics. These workshops covered the process of accessing these repositories, including logging in, browsing, searching, accessing an article, and downloading PDFs. Each workshop lasted around two hours and was highly practical in nature, with students using their own laptops and cellular modems.

In this article, I make the case that accessing journals online is an essential part of stimulating research and knowledge production in institutions such as SAUT. This is not because these Northern-authored texts provide the sole source of academic knowledge, or that the information presented was not open to challenge. Rather, the academic debates presented in journals provide an opportunity for the students to consider competing theories, paradigms, and epistemological positions. With the weak research culture of the institution, the goal was to help students critically engage with the academic debate, and perhaps develop their own positions. A similar ethos informed aspects of the pedagogy of the workshops, as we made the decision to work with the students’ own experience of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This experience not only benefitted the teaching through bringing the teaching closer to students’ own experiences of ICT, it also proved to have practical benefits for combating the issue with Tanzania’s infrastructure.

The Digital Divide and Online Journals

Much of the work done on ICTs in Africa focuses on development, with a primary focus on the economic impact of these technologies. The underlying epistemological assumptions behind many of the existing approaches can be challenged, however. In an analysis that is useful for this project, Robin Mansell (2014) draws a distinction between exogenous and endogenous models. The former is the type of top-down approach favored by institutions such as the World Bank, in which “knowledge is like light” (World Bank 2011, 1). This approach, however, privileges the knowledge produced in the “advanced” North over the global South. Endogenous approaches, on the other hand, are bottom-up and emphasize the local production of knowledge, recognizing the existence of multiple knowledges and perspectives. Mansell (2014) argues that an endogenous approach in the policies surroundings ICTs for development would provide a greater chance for the technologies to be used for human development.

If an endogenous approach is to be welcomed, does this not present a problem for teaching online journals? Given that the vast majority of material in even Africanist journals is produced in the North, is using these journals not a clear example of privileging Northern knowledge? Through the teaching of the workshops, I strived to ensure that this was not the case. As described in this article, the research culture of a university such as SAUT is extremely limited, dominated by a single, positivist research paradigm. By placing journal access within the pedagogical context, these workshops stimulated debate and illustrated the different paradigms and research methodologies present in the broader literature.

The differences in access between the global North and South has been described as a “digital divide,” yet this is a concept that has been critiqued. David Gunkel (2003) observes that the term “digital divide” inherently creates a dichotomy between two binary opposed options: the “haves” and “have-nots”. Furthermore, it creates a hierarchy between these categories. The example of access to online journals supports Gunkel’s critique. The global situation is more complex than the single division that the “digital divide” suggests. Globally, there is a great variation between institutions, and indeed among students, in the use of available online resources. In Tanzania, usage is low: as outlined below, on average there is less than one download of an online journal article for every instructor or student in Tanzania. Within Tanzania, however, there is also a great deal of variation between institutions, not only in the technological infrastructure but also the training and knowledge of library staff, academics, and students (Manda 2005). Even within the global North, the experiences of institutions differ. For example, a study of universities in the UK (Research Information Network 2009) reveals that per capita usage of online journals varies greatly between institutions. In research-intensive institutions, per capita usage was almost three times higher than less research-intensive institutions.

Our concern in teaching these workshops was on the use of online resources by students. This stands in contrast to much of the existing research on the digital divide that has, as Jan A.G.M. van Dijk (2012) observes, focused on physical access to computers and the Internet (64). Indeed, this concern for the infrastructure is present in most discussions of Internet literacy in Africa (Belcher, Gwynn, and Rosenberg 2006, 120; Manda 2005, 271-274; Harle 2010, 17-23). Much of the research focuses upon the negative aspects of Internet access in Africa. There are, of course, challenges to using the Internet in Tanzania. The quality of Internet connections at African higher education institutions is frequently very low; a decade ago, they averaged the same bandwidth as a domestic broadband connection in Europe, and cost 50 times the price paid by educational establishments elsewhere in the world (Gakio 2006, iii). New developments bring new issues: “[T]he advent of electronic journals generated new problems, specifically the need to upgrade ICT facilities and infrastructure, to secure good internet access, and to invest in training and familiarisation” (Harle 2010, 4). Programs to develop the teaching of online materials have been limited by unreliable Internet access and an irregular power supplies (Wema 2010).

Yet the focus upon the difficulties and problems surrounding Internet access does not get us far in developing a pedagogical approach to accessing online journals. The approach of our workshops was not to teach within university computer labs, but to make use of the students’ own laptops and cellular modems. We initially created a workshop that encouraged as much real-world use of the materials as possible. That approach had an interesting side effect in revealing the fact that students had already developed strategies to combat the difficulties of being online in Tanzania. Laptop batteries could help students survive through the country’s frequent power cuts, and cellular modems provided far more reliable Internet access than what was available in university labs. Working with the students’ knowledge of the limitations of the Tanzanian infrastructure was not only valuable in improving their learning. It also had practical benefits for ensuring that the workshops ran smoothly, and were not interrupted even if there were power cuts or outages.

Accessing Academic Journals Online in Africa

The value for African universities of accessing peer-reviewed journal articles has been addressed at the international level. There are schemes in place to give African institutions access to a large amount of scholarly material, two of which will be highlighted here. JSTOR, perhaps the most important online journal repository, has an African Access Initiative: universities, colleges and secondary schools in Africa can apply for free access to JSTOR’s massive archived journals collection (JSTOR n.d.). Thus, African universities have free full-text access to the back issues of over two thousand journal titles. Another organization that has given attention to the issue of African access is the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and their Programme for Enhancement of Research Information (PERI).[1] Among other research development activities, PERI negotiates with a broad range of publishers across many disciplines to organize reduced fees or free access to their journals. All of the major academic publishers are involved with this program, including Oxford University Press, Springer, and Taylor & Francis. The decision over which subscriptions will be purchased is arranged by country-level consortia of universities and colleges. This means tat all universities in Tanzania have access to the same titles through PERI (Hanley et al. 2012). INASP has also been organizing training for librarians since 1999 (Belcher, Gwynn, and Rosenberg 2006, 116).

Through PERI, JSTOR, and other initiatives, African institutions have the potential to access a vast amount of scholarly material. For example, a Tanzanian student or academic has access to over 6,400 full-text titles (Hanley et al. 2012, 5) via PERI, with an additional 2,000 through JSTOR. Looking at the top 20 titles across 15 disciplinary areas, Jonathan Harle (2010, 11-13) finds that African universities have access on average to 79 percent of the top journals.

Furthermore, there are other positive aspects of these schemes. The schemes recognize some of the realities of working in African universities. Access to online resources from most Northern institutions is secured through the IP address of an institution. This is also the case in Africa’s more elite research institutions, including the University of Dar es Salaam (Harle 2010, 23). However, many institutions in Africa lack the infrastructure to reliably provide access through a stable IP address, so in these cases access is provided via a password and username. SAUT is in this category. Each publisher has a different username and password, and most change annually. The impact of this system will be discussed further below. Country-level consortia for negotiating access also have the potential for levelling the playing field between institutions within a nation. While the reality of access varies between institutions, a researcher at SAUT at least has the potential of securing access to the same journals as a researcher at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Despite all of these positive initiatives, these resources are barely used by Tanzanian academics or students. In 2011, Tanzania downloaded 65,000 full-text journal articles from journals made available through PERI (Hanley et al. 2012, 5). At this time, Tanzania had around 85,000 students in higher education, and around 4,500 academic staff (The World Bank 2014).This means that a mere 0.7 articles were downloaded per student or academic.[2] Tanzanian students and academics are clearly not making use of the online resources available to them. As Harle (2010, 22) says:

[The] availability of scholarly information can no longer be claimed as the primary problem. …If the theoretical availability of scholarly content is now much greater, and if the sustainability of these access models can be assured, the problem may need to be redefined. It seems necessary instead to consider the ways in which available journals are or are not being accessed and used. In doing so, attention is focused on the barriers which prevent or discourage academics and students from making use of scholarly materials for research. [emphasis in original]

Exploring these barriers, I argue, allows us to understand deeper issues surrounding research culture and knowledge production at African institutions.

The existing literature on accessing online journals, quite understandably, devotes a great deal of attention to the role of libraries and librarians (Lwehabura and Stilwell 2008; Harle 2010; Manda 2005). While undoubtedly libraries and library staff have a key role to play in improving access to online materials, the focus on librarians alone does not ensure that the training is mainstreamed into the curriculum. I argue that the exploration of these issues goes beyond the libraries into an understanding of the broader issues of knowledge production in Africa. It also goes beyond the interests of librarians or mainstreaming information literacy into the curriculum; it is instead an issue key to understanding the research culture of the institution. It is first, however, necessary to understand the educational context in which a university such as SAUT exists.

SAUT: A Private University in Tanzania

The education system in Tanzania has undergone considerable changes since the end of British rule in 1961. The father of the nation, Tanzania’s first president, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, is referred to in Tanzania as Mwalimu – teacher. Nyerere studied at the University of Edinburgh, becoming the first Tanganyikan to achieve a degree from a British university (Molony 2014). While Nyerere placed great emphasis on education in his time in office, his focus was very much on primary education.

The Arusha Declaration of 1967 heralded Tanzania’s move toward socialism, one of the key consequences of which was the policy of Education for Self Reliance introduced in 1968. As Nyerere (1968 [1967], 290) said, “The education provided by Tanzania for the students of Tanzania must serve the purposes of Tanzania.” Primary education was a goal in itself, not preparation for further academic study (Wedgewood 2005, 7). The policy was a success in terms of primary school enrolment, reaching 97 percent gross enrolment by 1981 (Buchert 1994, 112), but only 3 percent of those finishing primary school went on to secondary school (Cooksey 1986, 184). The principal university at that time – and, indeed, to this day – was the University of Dar es Salaam, established in 1961 as a University College affiliated with the University of London. According to the Dar es Salaam website it became a full university in 1970.

By the 1980s, Tanzania’s economy was close to collapse. Nyerere left office in 1985, and there followed a series of economic and political liberalizations (McHenry 1994), eventually affecting the entire education system. The 1995 Higher Education Act established the provision for private higher education institutions and their regulation, while the National Higher Education Policy of 1999 encouraged their growth (The United Republic of Tanzania 1999, 1995; Ishengoma 2007, 87). Higher Education is now regulated by the Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU), which accredits institutions, programs, courses and qualifications.

There has been a rapid expansion of the number of students attending Tanzanian higher education institutions. As it stands, Tanzania has 28 universities recognised by TCU, 11 public and 17 private. Below these are a another 23 colleges, centers, or institutions operated by one of the institutions, 7 public and 16 private (TCU n.d.). World Bank figures reveal that in 2012 there were 166,000 registered students in tertiary education, up from only 23,600 a decade prior. In fact, from 2010 to 2012, student numbers almost doubled (The World Bank 2014). Thirty years ago, even reaching secondary school was a rare educational achievement; nowadays, the rate of students entering higher education is increasing rapidly.

SAUT is part of this rapid expansion, and is one of the largest private universities in Tanzania. It is a private, secular, non-profit institution, owned and managed by the Catholic Church. SAUT’s origins lie in the Nyegezi Social Training Institute, established by the Catholic White Fathers in 1960, close to Mwanza, Tanzania’s second largest city. With the liberalization of Tanzania’s higher education system beginning in the mid-1990s, the Catholic Bishops of Tanzania began the process of changing the institute into a university. SAUT was established in 1998, and has expanded considerably since its origins. In addition to the main campus of the university in Mwanza (where I was based), SAUT has opened, or is soon to open, centers in other cities, including Bukoba, Dar es Salaam, Arusha and Mbeya.

SAUT is not unusual in being run by a mainstream religious domination, as most of the other private universities are run by Christian churches, including the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Moravians. Even though Christians and Muslims exist in close to equal numbers in Tanzania, only two universities–the Zanzibar University and the Muslim University of Morogoro–are run by Islamic organisations. None of these denominational universities limit student enrolment or staff recruitment below the management level to members of a specific faith. This is, in part, a legacy of Tanzania’s success at nation building, with the importance of national identity making forbidding political mobilization on religious grounds (Heilman and Kaiser 2002). At SAUT, senior management, at head of faculty level and above, is limited to Catholic priests and nuns. Yet it remains a secular institution, as its stated mission emphasizes. A large proportion of the funding comes from the state, in the form of the tuition of undergraduate students paid for through the student loans system.

SAUT has faculties across the social sciences, including faculties of linguistics, mass communication, and sociology, as well as law and engineering. I was based in the faculty of Education, the largest in the university, covering not only school teaching methodologies but also geography, Swahili language, and my own discipline, history. Undergraduates in the faculty studied for bachelor’s degrees in Education, mostly looking to become secondary school teachers within Tanzania. Class sizes were large, with lecture classes of 800 not uncommon and no tutorials or seminars for undergraduates. The faculty had recently begun to expand into two-year postgraduate master’s programs. The Masters of Arts in Educational Management and Planning was very popular, attracting over 100 students a year. These student numbers proved a challenge for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, particularly when it came to supervising the student research projects required of undergraduates and postgraduates.

As is the practice in Tanzania, undergraduate classes were usually taught by assistant lecturers, teachers who held a master’s degree but not a Ph.D. A Ph.D. was required to teach postgraduate programs. This background to the staff may have affected their own knowledge of accessing online journals. Research in the UK (Research Information Network 2009) illustrates a vast difference between access by undergraduates and teaching postgraduates, and those taking research-led postgraduate programs. If there was a similar pattern in Tanzania, then staff at the assistant lecturer level would have little experience of accessing these resources themselves.

Considering that, thirty years before, few could expect to be educated in Tanzania beyond primary school, there has been a considerable and rapid change in the country’s education sector. These rapid increases have led some Tanzanian commentators to worry about the quality of education being offered by the private higher education sector. Bayreuth-based Tanzanian academic Victoria Makulilo (2012, 65) is concerned that private universities in Tanzania lack the necessary human resources and are looking to increase the number of graduates without regard for their quality. Johnson Ishengoma (2007, 104-5) from the faculty of Education at the University of Dar es Salaam argues that the rapid expansion of private education has more to do with religious institutions looking to expand their influence rather than the provision of quality education. A report on the widening access to higher education in Tanzania notes that “There were numerous complaints … about quality and standards in the private university—particularly in relation to lecturers, lack of facilities, support, accommodation and services. There was little sense of student entitlement to quality in pedagogical and academic practices” (Morley et al. 2010, 49). The report does emphasize that this is not only a problem in private institutions, but also in public universities as well. A particular concern of mine is the quality of research conducted at institutions such as SAUT, and it is to this area that my attention now turns.

Research at SAUT and the Need for Online Journals

SAUT does not have the reputation of being a research-led institution. I argue that developing a research culture is important for universities even if teaching focused. First of all, both undergraduate and postgraduate students are required to produce a research-based dissertation. A large amount of time is spent by faculty on research supervision. The second reason that a research culture is important at SAUT is that many members of the staff are looking toward the opportunity provided by further study, for example a holder of a master’s degree looking to study for a Ph.D. At the time I was there, SAUT did not offer a Ph.D. program, but many members of the staff were preparing proposals for study in other institutions within Tanzania or abroad. There have been attempts to develop the research culture at the institution by producing faculty journals and seminars. Yet there remain serious issues with the research at the institution and with the future of social research in Tanzania.

At SAUT, I supervised dozens of undergraduate and postgraduate research projects, mostly in the field of education. I examined many dozens more. With only a handful of exceptions, the research projects were framed within a positivist research paradigm, employing either a quantitative or mixed-method research design. Furthermore, the majority of the projects were very narrow in scope and ambition. For example, a typical project would apply an old theory such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—a hierarchical ordering of motivations first proposed in the 1940s—to the motivations of teachers working in the school district closest to the university. There is certainly scope for an exploration of Northern theories in the African setting, yet the work did not engage critically with theory, offering little in terms of insights into either the theory or Tanzania’s education system.

As I am from a qualitative, Africanist research background, I found this troubling. A colleague of mine, Stephen Kerr, has more than five years’ experience teaching research methodologies to students in Tanzanian universities. He concludes that the almost complete dominance of a positivist research paradigm in Tanzania’s research institutions “severely degrade[d] our intellectual landscape, narrow[ing] the field of social inquiry, and stunt[ing] the development of new theory” (Kerr 2013, 1). The use of the positivist paradigm even extended to research in history. A piece of research on historical social change in Mwanza region, for instance, could be based on research gathered through questionnaires containing mostly closed-ended questions. While both Kerr and I accept that positivist social research has a role, the dominance of this paradigm over all others has serious consequences. The research at SAUT was generally very narrow in scope. “The constant borrowing of other people’s ideas or theories to test and re-test is a little like the washing and rewashing of mitumba (second-hand clothes) bought in the market. Not only does it cheapen the academic endeavour, but also the theory can become worn out and threadbare very quickly” (Kerr 2013, 4).

Kerr traces the dominance of the positivist paradigm back to the earliest developments in academia in Tanzania following independence: “This first wave of Tanganyika based intellectuals knew only too well that all eyes were on them waiting for them to fail, and therefore ensured they complied with international standards by buying into the dominant scientific episteme of the era. Very quickly, conducting social ‘research’ became synonymous with carrying out ‘scientific’ experiments” (Kerr 2013, 1). Dependency theory—in which the Dar es Salaam-based academic Walter Rodney (1973) played a key role—was the dominant theory in both the North and South. Yet as intellectual fashions in the global North changed, dependency theory was increasingly being rejected. As Nugent observes, postmodernism became more fashionable in the humanities and social science in the North: “Although the … fashion gripped North America and Europe, it passed most of Africa by” (Nugent 2009, 6). An institution such as SAUT is also very influenced by the dominant paradigms in the University of Dar es Salaam.

The aim of teaching online journals was not so much to get researchers at SAUT to become followers of the latest Northern academic fashions. Nor is it the goal of increasing the power differences between institutions through privileging the Northern-produced information in Northern journals. Rather, the hope was that using online journals would be part of the development of new research approaches and theories.

It is also important to use the teaching of the journals to illustrate the power of academic debate. Journal articles are an excellent way of illustrating these debates. With each point supported by a reference or evidence, journals illustrate how critical debates operate in academia. As SAUT students rarely—if ever—witnessed the cut and thrust of an academic presentation or seminar, it was through the debates presented in academic journals that they would be exposed to this aspect of academic life. It was probably too much to expect students to challenge the prevailing set of research orthodoxies in the North. However, I did hope that the students would use their existing knowledge to pick up on errors in established academic texts, whether these were a mistranslated text or another inaccurate detail in the published work of a Northern academic. This did not occur, but hopefully students will learn the skills not only to point out errors, but also to critically engage more broadly with academic debates.

An understanding of the academic discourse that is published in Northern institutions is essential for academic debate. As the Sri Lankan academic Suresh Canagarajah puts it:

I believe that it is a necessary evil that periphery scholars should use center publications even to resist their dominance. Given the power, spread, and currency of center publications, it is foolhardy to not use them to further periphery knowledge and interests. Since these are the established channels of academic communication, we cannot help but use them even for oppositional purposes. Furthermore, periphery scholars need to negotiate their interests and knowledge with center scholarship. This is important for challenging the limitations of mainstream knowledge, disseminating periphery knowledge effectively, and eventually contributing to the enrichment and democratization of international relations (Canagarajah 2002, 12).

Whatever one’s view of the debates generated, use of academic journals is essential to engaging with the international research process.

Yet further to Canagarajah’s argument, working in SAUT also led me to reflect upon where the “center” lay in center-periphery debate. From the perspective of a university such as SAUT, I increasingly grew to believe that the center to which SAUT and other universities is peripheral to is made up of the Tanzanian public universities. “Center” is not synonymous with “North”; neither is the South necessarily the periphery. In the case of the field of history, in particular, the history department of the University of Dar es Salaam looms large. This department has probably been the most intellectually influential academic department in Tanzania’s post-independence history. To the extent that there was genuinely a “Dar es Salaam School” of history, it has been understood as referring to histories that are nationalist in viewpoint, aimed at uncovering African initiatives in Tanzanian history (Denoon and Kuper 1970). While much work was done by expatriate historians such as Terrence Ranger[3] and John Iliffe, it was a 1969 volume edited by two Tanzanians, Arnold Temu and Isaria Kimambo, A History of Tanzania (Kimambo and Temu 1969), that marked the compilation of a coherent history of Tanzania (Denoon and Kuper 1970, 332). In turn, it is this history that became the basis for the Tanznaian primary and secondary school history curricula.

In many areas, the study of Tanzanian history by Northern historians has been a response to the nationalist history produced by the University of Dar es Salaam. To take one example that I found useful in the teaching environment at SAUT, consider the study of Maji Maji Rebellion. This was a major rebellion in 1905-7 against German rule in the south of the colony. This is a particularly good event to teach because it is an accessible example of an academic debate. The University of Dar es Salaam produced a nationalist interpretation of the event as a proto-nationalist struggle that led directly to the independence struggle (for example, in a chapter by G.C.K. Gwassa in A History of Tanzania [Gwassa 1969])). More recently, there has been a response in articles published in Northern research journals, including by Jamie Monson (Monson 1998) and Thaddeus Sunseri (Sunseri 2003). These responses critique the nationalist approaches of the Dar es Salaam School, through an exploration of the social roots of the conflict that went beyond it as a proto-nationalist anticolonial struggle. It was through the debate occurring in Northern academic journals that students were able to explore themes related to a nationalist historiography that originated in Dar es Salaam. There is the potential here for students to engage critically at the national level, within the global South, facilitated by the Northern academic journals.

When thinking about ideas of the center, it is more complex than only exploring the divide between Northern and Southern institutions. It is necessary to also explore the power differentials between institutions within countries. Access to online materials produced by the global North is one way in which those newer periphery institutions can hope to catch up with the older Southern institutions that enjoy more developed research cultures.

Use of ICT by Students at SAUT

If the approach to exploring Information and Communication Technology (ICT) use in Tanzanian universities focuses purely on the ICT provision of the institutions themselves, then the picture for SAUT is not positive. There are a number of computer rooms across campus; these include machines open to all at the main library, as well as computer rooms in various faculties and the US-government funded information resource the American Corner. However, the total number of computers is tiny compared to the number of students. The additional problem is the unreliable electricity supply experienced across Tanzania: it could be expected to have one full day without power every week, as well as many other shorter power cuts. While there is a generator that provides power to some buildings, this does not cover the library, nor many staff offices. In terms of Internet access, the connection provided by the university is also slow and unreliable. Wireless Internet is available in the central library, but this is often slow and goes down for weeks at a time due to technical problems. This compares to the University of Dar es Salaam, which has always stood far above other institutions in terms of student-computer ratios and the speed of Internet access (Manda 2005). One important way in which the IT infrastructure is notable at the University of Dar es Salaam is that a list of resources is made available on the library website. This means it is far clearer for students and staff to know what resources are available to them. Yet, in comparing this university to an institution such as SAUT, it should be remembered that all institutions in Tanzania have access to the same online journals.

There have been a number of studies of the use of ICT by students in Tanzanian universities (Manda 2005; Lwehabura and Stilwell 2008). There is, however, more to the use of ICT than the rather pessimistic picture of provision of Internet access by the institution. The use of ICT, and the Internet in particular, is a fast-changing landscape in Tanzania. I have been involved with ICT in Tanzanian education since the late 1990s, working in a large state secondary school near the town of Moshi. At that time, computer skills were limited, and use of the Internet in any capacity was rare. By the mid-2000s, computer skills and Internet use had increased dramatically, with access primarily through Internet cafes. The greatest growth in the last few years has been the growth in mobile Internet, with access to the Internet through mobile phones or through cellular modems attached to laptops. It is these technologies that we utilized in the provision of the online journal workshops. In the future, no doubt the technologies will change further. For example, during one workshop, a student asked if they could access journals on their mobile phones. Any future design must take into account the use of mobile phones and tablets for accessing these materials.

Even though formal provision is weak, ICTs are an increasingly important part of the student’s academic lives at SAUT. Students are expected to have access to computers—undergraduate and postgraduate research papers were expected to be printed, for instance. At the request of my undergraduate students in my lecture course, I started to give out lecture notes in PDF format as well as paper copies. The reason that students requested materials digitally is probably so they could save the money they would have spent on photocopying paper materials.

Importantly, students at SAUT already used the Internet for research. In their research projects, the use of some Internet-based sources was universal. Wikipedia was a popular source of information, perhaps because it tends to be high up on the page of Google results rather than an understanding of the particular nature of this resource. In many respects, students were naïve users of ICT. For example, some of their behavior left their laptops at risk of viruses and other security breaches. This included installing potentially hazardous browser toolbars, and the use of USB sticks in multiple machines without antivirus software. The bigger problem was the lack of critical reading when encountering material online. This was a skill that we aimed to develop throughout the students’ studies, not least through the reading of academic journal articles.

As Jan A.G.M. van Dijk observes, having the motivation to use digital technologies is an essential requirement before any of the additional hurdles to getting online can even be approached (van Dijk 2012, 62-65). It is clear that students were motivated to use the Internet for research, and, moreover, that they saw Internet-based sources as appropriate for their academic work. This was an essential first step in teaching the course. As it turned out, the level of enthusiasm of students in the workshops was high, as described in the next section.

Teaching Online Journal Workshops

The workshops were designed to help combat some of the weaknesses in the research culture at SAUT and to develop an understanding of the nature of scholarly sources. A concern raised by Harle’s research is that Tanzanian academics can lack this understanding and fail to comprehend the academic landscape in which articles reside(Harle 2010, 29). As part of the broader teaching during master’s programs, the workshops at SAUT aimed to combat these problems. Familiarity with the scholarly landscape can only come with time, but the workshops aimed to give students the first steps in this direction. One way this was done was through talking about and explaining academic journals and the peer-review process in both the workshop and preceding classes. This broader recognition of the nature of academic sources and academic debates must be an essential part of such training. It is only through this knowledge and understanding that students can hope to follow an emerging academic debate and understand the importance of critical engagement with published material.

In the workshops, we taught accessing, downloading, browsing through journals, and finally how to use online search. After teaching the basics of logging onto the repository using the username and password provided by the institution, the focus became giving the students some idea of the breadth of material that was available in an online repository such as JSTOR. Students were encouraged to browse, to see the wealth of journals available across a broad range of academic subjects. As it turned out, one of the most important issues was teaching students how to return to the homepage of each journal in case they got lost in the site. We also highlighted the difference between articles, book reviews, and review articles.

Students were then taught how to reach a specific article in a given issue of a journal, as in the case that they were searching for an article on a reading list. Browsing through a website in this manner is probably not the most efficient or easiest way of accessing academic material. A British study, for instance, found that researchers at elite research-led British institutions spent only a short amount of time on publishers’ websites (Research Information Network 2009). Yet from a pedagogical perspective, it was important to reinforce for SAUT students the nature of academic journals organized into volumes and issues. If the students had been familiar with accessing academic journals offline, and had experience using the long shelves of bound journals in a university library, then this would be less necessary. I hoped that understanding the structure of academic journals would improve the students’ understanding of the academic debate. I also felt that recognizing the structure of journals would encourage the use of proper referencing, to ensure that the volume and issue numbers appeared in students’ bibliographies.

Given that the students were not skilled in many aspects of IT use, I produced a printed handout for the class that outlined click-by-click the steps required to access the journals. Every step was accompanied by a screenshot. There are risks with preparing a static handout to cover dynamic media such as websites. Indeed, three days before the workshop, JSTOR introduced a major redesign of their website. Not a mere cosmetic change, the redesigned site required an additional step to be performed. This required a late-night redesign of the handout before the class. The workshop also taught the downloading of PDFs, so that students could have their own library of documents for offline use. This was a particularly useful skill to have in this educational context as many of the students would be accessing these resources at an Internet café. It was, however, probably the least straightforward part of the workshop to teach, given the broad range of browsers and computer settings.

While the ability to easily search repositories is one of the most powerful functions that online resources offer, in the workshop we decided to teach that at the end of the session because once the students are introduced to searching, there is no stopping them! They do not need prompting that they should use search to explore themes from their research projects. It is extremely rewarding to see the enthusiasm with which they delve into the available articles. This can also be depressing: it demonstrates the lack of access to academic sources that they have had throughout their scholarly career. Searching is more of an art than a science, and it is here that the utility of the click-by-click handout ended.

There are many powerful tools for research that the workshops did not touch upon. We did not discuss the use of software that can aid referencing and bibliographies, like Papers and Endnote. The workshop also did not discuss the use of broader search engines, such as Google Scholar. There were a number of reasons why the teaching of these would have needed extra care and attention. First of all, it would have been necessary for a strong differentiation to be made between ordinary Google and Google Scholar, to make sure that students understood the difference between the two. The main problem, however, was that it is not always easy or straightforward to gain access to the articles found on Google Scholar. Students at the University of Dar es Salaam reported similar issues; even for the sites for which the university does have access, students are often unaware of this (Harle 2010, 28). The concern was that the students would turn to the material that was one simple click away on Google Scholar, frequently materials such as master’s theses, and other non-peer reviewed material. While this material may be of use to the experienced researcher, students lacked the scholarly experience to differentiate the valuable material from those of less academic value.

These issues highlight perhaps the greatest drawback of the current infrastructure surrounding online journals at SAUT: the lack of some form of centralized list telling students which resources are available. For a student or academic to know which resources are available, they have to have a certain amount of familiarity with a range of websites and have an idea which publisher’s website offers access to which journals. This makes searching for a specific journal problematic. Anders Wändahl notes that, while Northern universities can afford to employ dedicated librarians to compile lists of online resources available to students, few African universities have access to this level of resource. He does conclude, however, that more resources than might initially be thought are available, it just takes more effort and knowledge for the scholar to access the resources compared to a Northern scholar (Wandahl 2009). Ideally, scholars should have that level of knowledge of the academic landscape that enables them to find the resources they need without a centralised list or database. There is a degree where this lack means there is a pedagogical opportunity to teach a deeper understanding scholarly landscape, to foster a deeper understanding. Yet, overall, the lack of a centralised database of available online journals is a major hindrance.

Understanding the Digital Divide in Practice

The issue of locally produced knowledge also extends to how we utilize the students’ existing skills and experience. One of the key early decisions about organizing the workshop was whether it would take place in a library IT lab or using the students’ own personal laptops. My initial view was that the better option was to use a university lab. I thought that this would make the teaching more straightforward and effective, because every student would be using identical hardware and browser software. However, my colleague Stephen Kerr persuaded me that it was a better option to have students bring in their own laptops and cellular modems. This, he argued, would give a closer real-world experience by having students use of their own equipment. It seemed likely that, given the large student numbers and the small availability of university computers, almost all students would access the Internet through either their own laptops or at Internet cafés. We eventually decided that we would use the students’ personal laptops for the task, a decision that proved to be correct in a number of important areas.

A quick show of hands in the classes where the workshop would be conducted revealed that it was certainly feasible for students to bring in their own laptops, as they had a laptop per 2 or 3 students. Recall that access to journals is through password and username, rather than IP address offered in most Northern institutions as well as the University of Dar es Salaam. One of the effects of this was that accessing material would be the same from the students’ own laptops, at an Internet café, or a University lab. This is, of course, possible at institutions that provide access via IP authentication, through the use of proxy servers or VPNs. Yet this presents problems if the institution does not have a robust IT infrastructure.

IT training sessions in Tanzania are often hampered by poor Internet connections and an unreliable electricity supply. For example, the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications—the organisation that runs the program for providing African universities with access to online journals—has run training sessions for information literacy skills trainers. One of the principal problems they reported in running the workshops was intermittent Internet connections and power outages that lasted several hours (Wema 2010). By having students use their own laptops and cellular modems, these problems were largely alleviated. Using laptop batteries means that power cuts are not an immediate issue. While cellular Internet connections can go down, as students’ connections were spread across several providers, this meant that most of the participants still had access. The workshops could continue in the face of these challenges.

This experience convinced me that endogenous, locally produced knowledge of IT systems should be utilized in the teaching process. Apart from any epistemological issues, there is the practical point: my students lived with the practical issues of using the Internet in Tanzania every day, and so had developed strategies to cope with the limitations. This is the reason that laptops and cellular modems were widely used, as opposed to computer labs. From a purely practical perspective, working within the students’ own experiences means that the classes run smoother. This is an issue that trainers, librarians, and teachers working in any institution should consider.

Trainers, librarians, and researchers should be aware of the realities of how the Internet is used on the ground—and how this provides both problems and opportunities. If the physical infrastructure of the university is relied upon for training, this presents a twin problem: it presents the risk of power-cuts and Internet shortages, while at the same time it does not reflect the real-world use of IT by the students. Researchers should also be aware of the shifting IT landscape in Africa. Given that access to the Internet via mobile phones is increasingly widespread, for example, there are opportunities for new ways of working with researchers.

Undoubtedly, there are limitations to the use of the Internet for research in Tanzania. The available bandwidth is more than sufficient for accessing online repositories. But for other uses of the Internet, the available bandwidth poses difficulties. Viewing streaming videos online is often problematic. In my own research, I found the resources at to be a very valuable. In particular, this site scans out-of-copyright books from many libraries, making titles that were previously very difficult to obtain readily available from any computer with an Internet connection. I found this site very useful in my own research on the published accounts of 19th century explorers and missionaries. However, bandwidth issues often made this site difficult to use, particularly when downloading large PDFs of historic texts.

This bandwidth issue has wider implications for the role of ICT in African universities. At an institution such as SAUT, many staff and students are gaining access through their own resources—through Internet cafés and cellular modems. Furthermore, these private providers supply a better service than that provided by the institution. Many of the essential features of a university IT infrastructure in Northern institutions (institutional email addresses, access to resources via IP address, proxy servers) are absent in the South, with abundant workarounds in place and required. The role of the ICT infrastructure provided by the university seems to me to be fundamentally different from that in Northern institutions.

This leads to the question, how should a private university in Africa be seeking to develop its ICT infrastructure? If a university such as SAUT did introduce IP address-based authentication for online journals, the current infrastructure of the university would not be able to cope, and access would be compromised. In developing the infrastructure of the institution, it might perhaps be better for the institution to think about those services that only the university can provide: access to online journals, for example, through the proper distribution of the necessary usernames and passwords among staff and students. It is the training of scholars, and facilitating access, that is essential to encouraging knowledge production in Africa. Yet by shifting the burden of infrastructure to the students, it also shifts the costs to them as well. As access widens to include students from poorer backgrounds, this cost burden erects another barrier to higher education entry.


Teaching this workshop on online journals in Tanzania was an engaging process that led me to explore the ways the research culture and knowledge production at an institution such as SAUT could be developed. SAUT had a very underdeveloped research culture, and developing access to online journals proved one way to begin to change this. Broadening the students’ access to high-quality academic texts was one way to begin to get students to engage with academic debates. Even though journals are almost entirely produced in the global North, they can also be used in the context of academic debates originating within the global South. Yet in order for this to be productive in terms of developing a research culture, it is necessary to contextualize these journals in teaching that goes beyond the mere accessing of online materials. Rather, critical engagement with broader research paradigms must be developed.

From a pedagogical perspective, it is not positive to adopt an approach that relies on a fixed idea of how a workshop such as this should be taught. This is particularly the case when working in an environment where there are constraints to access, for example in terms of infrastructure. Rather, it is better to embrace the knowledge and experience of students—after all, they live with the problems of access every time they try to go online. This is not purely a way of making students engage more closely with the material. On a purely practical level it can also smooth over many of the technical constraints faced by teachers.

Compared to elite research-led institutions, the situation in the global South remains one where students and academics at institutions on the periphery have many more challenges to accessing information. Accessing online journals is only one step in the essential task of broadening the research culture in these institutions.


Belcher, Martin, Sara Gwynn, and Diana Rosenberg. 2006. “ICT Training: INASP workshops for African university library staff.” Information Development no. 22 (2):116-122. doi: 10.1177/0266666906065574.

Buchert, Lene. 1994. Education in the Development of Tanzania 1919-1990. London: James Currey. OCLC 609534726.

Canagarajah, A. S. 2002. A Geopolitics of Academic Writing: University of Pittsburgh Press. OCLC 231972323.

Cooksey, Brian. 1986. “Policy and Practise in Tanzanian Secondary Education since 1967.” International Journal of Educational Development no. 6 (3):183-202. doi: 10.1016/0738-0593(86)90016-7

Denoon, Donald, and Adam Kuper. 1970. “Nationalist Historians in Search of a Nation: The ‘New Historiography’ in Dar es Salaam.” African Affairs no. 69 (277):329-349.

Denoon, Donald, and Adam Kuper. 1971. “The ‘New Historiography’ in Dar es Salaam: A Rejoinder.” African Affairs no. 70 (280):287-288.

Gakio, Karanja. 2006. African Tertiary Institutions Connectivity Surveys (ATICS) 2006 Report.

Gunkel, David J. 2003. “Second thoughts: toward a critique of the digital divide.” New Media & Society no. 5 (4):499-522.

Gwassa, G.C.K. 1969. “The German Interviention and African Resistance in Tanzania.” In A History of Tanzania, edited by Isaria N. Kimambo and A.J. Temu, 85-123. Nairobi: East African Publishing House. OCLC 75149.

Hanley, Teresa, Catherine Gould, Jonathan Harle, and Kelsy Nelson. 2012. Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information: Phase II External Evaulation 2008-12 Final Report. International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications.

Harle, Jonathan. 2010. Growing knowledge: Access to research in east and southern African universities. London: The Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Heilman, Bruce, and Paul J Kaiser. 2002. “Religion, Identity and Politics in Tanzania.” Third World Quarterly no. 23 (4):691-709.

INASP. 2013. Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems.

Ishengoma, Johnson M. 2007. “The debate on quality and the private surge: a status review of private universities and colleges in Tanzania.” Journal of Higher Education in Africa no. 2 (2):85-109.

JSTOR. n.d. African Access Initiative.

Kerr, S.B. 2013. “Counting the Theoretical Cost: The Dominance of the Positivistic Paradigm in Tanzanian Social Research.” Unpublished.

Kimambo, Isaria N., and A.J. Temu. 1969. A History of Tanzania. Nairobi: Northwestern University Press. OCLC 75149.

Lwehabura, Mugyabuso Julius, and Christine Stilwell. 2008. “Information literacy in Tanzanian universities: Challenges and potential opportunities.” Journal of Librarianship and Information Science no. 40 (3):179-191. doi: 10.1177/0961000608092553.

Lyon, Caroline, Ruth Barrett, and James Malcolm. 2006. Plagiarism is Easy, but also Easy to Detect. MPublishing, University of Michigan Library.

Makulilo, Victoria Boniface. 2012. “The proliferation of private universities in Tanzania: Quality compromised?Wudpecker Journal of Educational Research no. 1 (4):51-66.

Manda, Paul A. 2005. “Electronic Resource Usage in Academic and Research Institutions in Tanzania.” Information Development no. 21 (4):269-282. doi: 10.1177/0266666905060070.

Mansell, Robin. 2014. “Power and Interests in Information and Communication and Development: Exogenous and Endogenous Discourses in Contention.” Journal of International Development no. 26 (1):109-127. doi: 10.1002/jid.1805.

McHenry, Dean E. 1994. Limited choices : the political struggle for socialism in Tanzania. Boulder, Colo. ; London: Lynne Rienner. OCLC 30154631.

Molony, Thomas. 2014. Nyerere: The Early Years. Woodbridge: James Currey.

Monson, Jamie. 1998. “Relocating Maji Maji: The Politics of Alliance and Authority in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania, 1870-1918.” Journal of African History no. 39 (1):95-120. doi: 10.1017/s0021853797007123

Morley, Louise, Fiona Leach, Kattie Lussier, Amandina Lihamba, Rosemarie Mwaipopo, Linda Dzama Forde, and Godwin Egbenya. 2010. Widening Participation in Higher Education in Ghana and Tanzania: Developing an Equity Scorecard. University of Sussex.

Nugent, Paul. 2009. “Critical African Studies: A Voluntarist Manifesto.” Critical African Studies (1):1-19.

Nyerere, Julius K. 1968 [1967]. “Education for Self-Reliance.” In Freedom and Socialism, edited by Julius K. Nyerere, 267-290. London: Oxford University Press. OCLC 299273.

Ranger, Terence. 1971. “The ‘New Historiography’ in Dar es Salaam: An Answer.” African Affairs no. 70 (278):50-61 .

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Rodney, Walter. 1973. How Europe underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Dar es Salaarn: Tanzania Publishing House. OCLC 462772585.

Stöger-Eising, Viktoria. 2000. “”Ujamaa” Revisited: Indigenous and European Influences in Nyerere’s Social and Political Thought.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute no. 70 (1):118-143. doi: 10.3366/afr.2000.70.1.118

Sunseri, Thaddeus. 2003. “Reinterpreting a Colonial Rebellion: Forestry and Social Control in German East Africa, 1874-1915.” Environmental History no. 8 (3):430-451. doi: 10.2307/3986203

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The United Republic of Tanzania. 1995. An Act to amend the Education Act, 1979, to establish the Higher Educatiuon Accreditation Council, to provide the procedure for accreditation and other related matters. 14/9/1995.

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The World Bank. The World Bank DataBank.

van Dijk, Jan A.G.M. 2012. “The Evolution of the Digital Divide – The Digital Divide Turns to Inequality of Skills and Usage.” In Digital Enlightenment Yearbook 2012, edited by J. Bus, M. Crompton, M. Hildebrandt and G. Metakides, 57 – 78. Amsterdam: IOS Press.

Wandahl, Anders. 2009. “Not served on a silver platter! Access to online mathematics information in Africa.” In First International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences May 2009. University of Buea, Cameroon.

Wedgewood, Ruth. 2005. Post-Basic Education and Poverty in Tanzania. In Post-Basic Education and Training Working Paper Series. Edinburgh: Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh.

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[1] PERI ran in two phases from 2003 to 2013, the second phase of which was called PERii. It has recently been replaced by INASP’s Strengthening Research and Knowledge Systems (SRKS). Negotiating with publishers for access to online journals remains a key aspect of their work (INASP 2013).

[2] While a more detailed breakdown of these figures would be informative, the information is, unfortunately, not available. For example, as access is gained through University-level username and password, it is not easy to differentiate between faculty and student access. The reliability of the usage figures from INASP has also been questioned, as there can be a great deal of variation from year to year (Harle 2010, 16). As a result, the statistics are offered purely as a general indication of low online usage in Tanzania.

[3] Ranger (1971) himself strenuously objected to the suggestion that there was a single Dar es Salaam School of history. See also the response of Denoon and Kuper (1971).



About the Author

Dr. Tom Fisher’s research interests are on politics and ethnicity in Tanzania, focusing on the Chagga group from Kilimanjaro. He completed his PhD at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh in 2012. He lectured in history at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT) in Mwanza until 2013, and is currently a researcher for a UK-based road safety NGO.

Runaway Quilt Project: Digital Humanities Exploration of Quilting During the Era of Slavery


Deimosa Webber-Bey, Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science


The Runaway Quilt Project began with methods and management exercises for a course during library school, archived on a research blog. The initial goal was to use digital humanities tools to explore the plethora of data that exists regarding quilting during the era of slavery, looking for interesting trends and correlations. The “Maker Unknown” quilt preserves the results of research performed during this course. The following year, this endeavor continued with other library school projects, and the goal evolved from simply exploring quilt data to creating a meaningful interpretation and presentation of the information aggregated. The “Maker Known” quilt preserves the data visualizations created during the second year of research.


The development of the World Wide Web has had a profound impact on quilting at the turn of this century, as the development of the printing press impacted it at the turn of the last. Before the printing press was invented, quilt patterns were passed from quilter to quilter; after it was invented, quilt patterns were mass distributed in magazines and newsletters. Before the invention of the World Wide Web, quilt research was primarily qualitative, relying on the analysis of surviving pieces in museum collections; since the web’s development, it has become possible to study large swaths of surviving quilts held in museums, as well as those personally owned and itemized in various documentation projects. This presents quilt scholars with a wide range of new opportunities.

My grandmother is both a quilter and a teacher, traits which she has passed down to me. She meets weekly with an informal quilting circle, passing on knowledge and patterns to her peers. We are both members of the Empire Quilter’s Guild, where quilters in the metropolitan area meet monthly for professional development and inspiration. My favorite part of the monthly meeting is a show-and-tell, where twenty to thirty quilts are displayed in rapid succession. Members share recently completed quilts as well as works in progress. These objects of art vary from traditional block patterns in muted tones to innovative uses of color captured in modern abstract designs. Each quilt shown is documented by the guild, and the online gallery of photographs from each meeting expands the audience from those present in the room to anyone with an internet connection. When the meeting is over and this group (of predominantly senior citizens) leaves the meeting, folks on the sidewalk that see these women emerging from the building with tote bags and rolling suitcases have no idea that they are crossing paths with fine artists. The meeting is inspirational.

In my second semester at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science, during an introductory Digital Humanities course, our professor, Dr. Chris Alen Sula, advised that we explore the same topic throughout the semester as we learned various digital tools for scholarship. This lab course taught us how to support twenty-first century scholarship in the humanities as librarians, and since it was my opportunity to engage any topic I desired, I decided to study African American quilting in the nineteenth century and use a blog, which I named the Runaway Quilt Project, to enable public interaction and feedback. This project eclipsed the one semester and eventually took center stage during my time at Pratt, and this article reflects two years of experimentation with digital humanities tools.

Trained as both an African and African American Studies scholar and a quilter, I am intrigued by the myth that quilts were used as signs on the Underground Railroad, and I am more than aware of the controversy that surrounds it. In fact, I avoid taking sides; as an African American female quilter I want to believe that women in slavery and their quilting peers on the outside were capable of such acts of resistance, but as an academic I know that there is no smoking gun/quilt and that the case against this legend has been well established. However, I chose to create digital objects that tell the story of quilting during the era of slavery so that I understand the context of this debate, and the resulting materials neither support nor refute the myth. These digital objects serve as a foundation for exploring trends in the data and developing research questions.

The tools and experimentation process take central stage in this narrative because the main purpose of each exercise was to learn how to create a digital object for a class assignment. Sometimes a later assignment allowed me to explore an idea or discovery in more depth, and at other times the research pursued a tangent or jumped into something new. At the end of each year, following discussions surrounding the preservation challenges of digital research projects, I created a tactile object – a quilt – that captured information and visualizations that could be represented on a two-dimensional surface. This allowed me to archive my research and share it with a non-academic audience, such as during the show-and-tell at the Empire Quilt Guild meeting. Ultimately, I entered these archival quilts into the International Quilt Festival to share my experience and use these objects of interest to drive traffic to the research blog that contains two years of work. This provides me with a critical mass of views so that I can eventually evaluate the blog and research process using altmetrics.

Altogether, this article privileges process over product. At the beginning, I examine the background for this research, including Brackman numbers, digitization projects, and the myth of a quilt code. This leads into textual analysis and introduces Gracie Mitchell, a quilter and ex-slave interviewed by the WPA Federal Writers Project in 1938. I present the experiments that were inspired by Mitchell’s interview transcript individually, with a brief discussion of the digital object at end of each section; they are not analyzed in full because my intention is to show rather than tell. At the end of this paper, I discuss documentation, preservation, and sharing, and I introduce the revised data quilt that preserves my work.


In his seminal essay, “English and the African Writer,” Chinua Achebe discusses the use of English for communication:

The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language so much that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning an English that is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience. I have in mind here the writer who has something new, something different, to say. (Achebe 1997, 347)

In the twenty-first century I interpret this charge to now include the use of HTML, the medium of international exchange on the World Wide Web, and so I attempt to use the tools of Digital Humanities to say something new and different about my particular experience as an African American quilter. The simple informational displays created for this project constitute practice for me, preparing me for future in-depth research.

Data visualization and the African & African American studies scholar

The week that we learned to use Tableau Public, a free data visualization tool, I created a digital object that has nothing to do with quilting, but everything to do with my interest in resistance during slavery. I turned to the Voyages Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, where there are 34,946 records in the “List of [slave] voyages” from 1514 to 1866. The website enables users to create visualizations, but users can also create and download custom tables, so I downloaded a table with only the data for voyages where the slaves resisted their captors. I experimented with several different chart configurations before I settled on a bubble map:

Figure 1: Bubble map for resistance during Middle Passage

Figure 1. Bubble map for resistance during Middle Passage

Left to right shows the continuum of days during middle passage, the size of the circle markers show how many slaves were on a ship, and the color indicates what country the slaves are from. Interesting questions that emerge from the data visualization include:

  • Why did slaves from Senegambia (pale green) who resisted tend to rebel on the first third of the voyage?
  • Why did slaves from Bight of Benin (dark orange) who resisted tend to rebel during the second half of the voyage?
  • Why did slaves from Sierra Leone (purple) and the Windward Coast (lavender) who resisted tend to rebel about fifty days into Middle Passage?

Creating this visualization gave me good practice with Tableau Public, and this example demonstrates the potential for using data visualizations to develop research questions.

Quilt digitization and documentation projects

The exciting part of exploring this subject in the digital humanities realm is that, with the affordances of the Internet and quilt documentation projects, particularly the Quilt Index, I was able to sit at my desk and download data for thousands of quilts. Before, conducting this work might have required a lifetime of traveling to museums and private homes to collect information. Since museums and research collections have posted their collections online and hosted documentation days, where private quilt owners bring in quilts to be photographed, dated, and sometimes placed geographically, the Quilt Index has been able to collect these virtual collections in one place on the web. This allowed me to build on their work and to create data visualizations and interactive digital objects that I and the public can explore, looking not for answers, but for interesting trends that led to new research questions and serendipitous discovery.

Brackman numbers

Many of the quilts in the Quilt Index and other archival collections are tagged with a Brackman number, from Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilting Patterns, which provides authority control for cataloging. This encyclopedia standardized the classification of quilts in 1993. Previously, patterns might be described in many different ways, but Brackman (1993) divides patterns into 25 categories, “classified and grouped into categories on the basis of the basic unit of design and the way it is repeated (its repeat). These visual categories are usually defined by seam lines that organize designs into types” (13). According to Janice Price (2011), Collection Manager at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum and a graduate of University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s unique quilt emphasis program, Brackman numbers are universal identifiers understood in the entire quilting domain. Brackman’s The Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilting Patterns and The Encyclopedia of Applique are considered the essential guides, with the potential to make databases interoperable. When quilt archivists are cataloging a quilt with no know title, location, or quiltmaker, eliminating the question of author or title entry, they begin by dating it within a twenty-year range. To do this curators identify patterns using the 1” x 1” pictures in Brackman’s encyclopedia.   They then examine the fabric and its colors, as well as whether the item was machine-stitched. Price acknowledges that dates change frequently as quilt historians make new discoveries. The quilt revival has been able to cope with the explosion of quilt documentation due to the affordances made possible by Brackman’s meticulous work.

The myth of a quilt code

One subject that has occupied popular conversation in the quilt domain since the 1996 publishing of Hidden in Plain View is the theory that quilt blocks were used for a code system in the Underground Railroad (Tobin 1999). Jacqueline Tobin advances the idea that different block patterns had unique meanings and that when the quilts were hung outside on clotheslines, fences, and porch railings, runaway slaves potentially interpreted the coded messages and acted accordingly. This controversial theory has two camps: one which asserts that there is no proof, and one which believes that this act of resistance is obvious, particularly due to the lack of proof, because success required discretion. It therefore occupies what Mary Louise Pratt refers to as a “contact zone,” the space between oral history and the written record, where these two distinct camps meet, clash, and grapple with each other (Sharpe 2003, 4). An example of this is the March 2003 Traditional Quiltworks article, “Betsy Ross redux: the Underground Railroad ‘Quilt Code,’” expanded into an e-book on the author’s website, where Leigh Fellner (2006) meticulously refutes the details included in Hidden in Plain View and devotes space to a “Hall of Shame” for “A seemingly endless cavalcade of retailers (almost exclusively white) who use slavery, African-Americans, and the ‘Underground Railroad Quilt Code’ as a marketing tool.” However, in this current global culture, picture books such as Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, in which a slave creates a map quilt with the Underground Railroad route stitched onto its surface, and the proliferation of quilt code lesson plans on the Internet, ensure that this idea will persist into subsequent generations and feed popular consumption (Sharpe 2003, 40).

Jenny Sharpe (2003), in Ghosts of Slavery, argues that in the absence of written information historians are forced to turn to oral histories to examine conjecture and understand what may have happened, so it is important to note that the data that I use for this project is incomplete (25). The quilts that have survived and inform this research represent a fraction of the quilts and quilters that were active in the era that I am studying. The experiments that I conducted with this data are as significant for what they do not say as they are for what they do. Like Sharpe, I am using an incomplete dataset to better understand a subject we cannot definitively know, since both the quilts and the narratives of slaves cited in this study represent the fraction that have survived the passage of time. Sharpe (2003) writes:

Rather than equating a black female subjectivity with individual consciousness or modes of self-expression like songs and testimonies, I locate it between written and oral histories, first-person and third-person accounts, pro- and antislavery writings, and at the point where the unspoken narratives of everyday life intersect with the known stories of slavery. In noting the inadequacy of language, I also denote the limits of this study as an effort to describe the everyday lives of female slaves, about which we have much to learn but can never fully know (xxvi).

I have been aware of the controversy regarding whether or not quilts were used as signposts on the Underground Railroad for years, so rather than ascribe to the arguments of either side, I used this opportunity in library school, learning tools for twenty-first century scholarship, to research quilting during and directly after the era of slavery within the general American and specifically African American population. Recognizing my limits, as Sharpe does, my goal was to create objects that stimulate conversation so that I can learn from scholars and quilters alike, facilitating serendipitous discovery and recording the cultural knowledge possessed by my grandmother and her quilting peers.

In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon (2008) writes about the need to investigate “that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time,” and the goal of the Runaway Quilt Project is not to prove or disprove a legend passed down through oral tradition (6). My objective is to understand the context of this legend while contributing empirical information to the field of African American and quilt scholarship that facilitates quantitative analysis for a variety of academic inquiries. At a minimum, quilting allowed African American women a form of artistic expression during a time of subjugation and dehumanization, and as Saidiya Hartman cautions, we should not “overestimate the subversiveness of everyday acts of resistance in the face of terror and cruelty suffered by slaves and the constraints placed on their agency” (quoted in Sharpe 2003, xv). However, the overwhelming appeal of the idea of a quilt code to the human psyche creates not only a hook or point of interest for this research exercise; it also offers an opportunity for future investigation into how slave myths and legends formed, as well as how they inform African American culture today. As Gordon (2008) writes:

[A]ny people who are not graciously permitted to amend the past, or control the often barely visible structuring forces of everyday life, or who do not even secure the moderate gains from routine amnesia, that state of temporary memory loss that feels permanent and that we all need in order to get through the days, is bound to develop a sophisticated consciousness of ghostly haunts and is bound to call for an “official inquiry” into them (151).

African American quilters have not been allowed to enshrine this everyday act of resistance into the historical record because of its foundation in oral tradition, a lack of concrete evidence, and details that may have become exaggerated over the passage of time. Yet, the persistence of this legend required me to address it, since it has become enshrined in the narrative of popular culture, and my opinion on this controversy is, and will continue to be, a question frequently asked by family, friends, peers, and colleagues. My answer has to be informed.

Oral history and digital annotation

For our first foray into digital humanities, we explored digital annotation, and I decided to take advantage of the Library of Congress’ online American Memory collection. During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration conducted interviews with African Americans who were former slaves. Searching for the keyword “quilt,” out of over 2,300 interviews, which were digitized for Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, I found that 156 (6.78%) mention quilting (Library of Congress Manuscript Division 2001). Over the course of a week, I read each of these interview transcripts and themes began to emerge. As I transcribed, I divided the quotes into categories:

  • Quotes from (or about) specific female slaves who quilted
  • Quotes that explain how quilts were made
  • Quotes that describe how quilts were used
  • Quotes from anecdotal stories where quilts are mentioned
  • Quotes about a term that was new to me – the “quilting party”

To share this work in an interactive forum, I created a website, where users can comment on each quote individually, engage the text, debate interpretations, and make their own meaning of the text. These brief mentions of specific patterns, methods, and hanging out at a “quilting” late into the night, show that the craft was economically, socially, and politically essential to the community. Unfortunately, seems to no longer be a functional website, so I created pages on the blog that list the quotes by topic, but users will no longer be able to comment at the paragraph level. One transcript that caught my immediate attention was that of Gracie Mitchell, interviewed in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Like an Empire Quilter, Mitchell conducted a show-and-tell with her captive audience, interviewer Bernice Bowden. In the notes for Mitchell’s interview, Bowden included a list of the twenty-two quilt designs that Mitchell showed her on that day (Mitchell 1938). This list, and Mitchell’s transcript, became central to my research experience, influencing the direction of further inquiry.

English literature and line graphs

The Google Ngrams tool measures how often phrases occur in books scanned as part of the Google Books project, and so I looked at terms related to large gatherings of slaves, such as “cornhuskings,” “log rollings,” and “quilting parties,” as well as quilt block names. These were analyzed in relation to relevant time periods and terms, such as “runaway slave” and “underground railroad,” and presented as graphs with observations.

To begin with, quiltings, candy pullings, log rollings, and corn shuckings were significant social gatherings identified by ex-slaves interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Explaining “quiltins,” three interviewees state that, with permission from their masters, slaves were able to attend a quilting at another plantation, which presented a significant opportunity for socializing and the communication of ideas (Avery 1936, 3; Davis 1938, 9; Mullen 1936, 3). Regardless of whether they were intentionally subversive gatherings, the presence of alcohol and limited oversight is significant. The “quilting party” also figures significantly in 19th century American texts, as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: English quilt term variants 1800-1900 (sm=5)

Figure 2. English quilt term variants 1800-1900 (sm=5)

This chart shows that the most popular way to refer to the event being discussed was “a quilting,” followed by the plural version “quiltings.” Both of these use the string of letters q-u-i-l-t-i-n-g as a noun, and its use as a noun is far more popular than its use as an adjective to modify “bee” or “party.” Investigating the sources scanned in Google Books that make up this data confirms that in the phrases “a quiltin” and “a quilting,” q-u-i-l-t-i-n-g is being used as noun, not a verb or adjective. A quilting was its own significant categorical event in the American psyche. All of the terms occur less frequently in British English publications, and both “quilting party” and the informal variant “a quiltin” are absent altogether, as shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3: 19th century British English quilt gathering term variants (sm=5)

Figure 3. 19th century British English quilt gathering term variants (sm=5)

This chart indicates that audiences for “quilting parties” and “quiltins” are unique to the American population. The “quilting party” is mentioned more in nineteenth-century American print publications than any of the terms in British print. Returning to Figure 1, it shows that these American phenomena were first mentioned in print in 1820.

  • The phrase “quiltin” peaks in American print in the 1840s (~0.000000850%) and “quilting party” in the 1850s (~0.000001750%).
  • The phrase “quiltings,” the most frequently occurring variant in British print, was most popular in the 1830s (~0.000001600%).

Filtering out British publications, I analyzed the terms to examine the American experience (Figure 4).

Figure 4: American English quilt gathering term variants (sm=3)

Figure 4. American English quilt gathering term variants (sm=3)

  • Most of these variants show a rapid increase in American print usage of the terms between 1820-1850.
  • The phrases “quiltin,” “quiltings,” and “quilting party” slowly decrease in occurrence in American print throughout the twentieth century.
  • The “quilting bee” replaces “quiltin,” “quiltings,” and “quilting party.”

The phrase “a quilting” sees revival and growth beginning in the 1970s, but investigating the Google Books used for the data set shows that, for the latter half of the twentieth century, quilting is used as an adjective in these occurrences, not as a noun. Falling out of usage first is “a quiltin,” hitting a low during the 1920s and never recovering. The phrase “quilting party” occurs about as often in the 1940s as it does in the 1850s, holding consistent for roughly one hundred years before a steep decline in the 1950s. The pluralized noun “quiltings” decreases in popularity beginning in the 1880s and continues to decrease throughout the twentieth century. Social quilting gatherings by these names have a life span of about 140 years, likely their audience did as well – meaning that the quilters who used this specific term were a distinct group of women born in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, who died in the early to mid-twentieth century without passing on the specific habits related to this term to the next generation of quilters. In the span of one generation, these particular nineteenth century American quilters, a phenomenon occurred that did not exist before, and it has since faded from collective discussion. If they didn’t pass down the term or practice of “quiltings” to their daughters, then we can infer that there is related information that was also lost.

Searching for quilt needles in a haystack

While the correlation between English literature and African American quilters is slim, curiosity required that I look for the frequency of use for phrases that are associated with the Underground Railroad quilt code legend. Figure 5 shows the introduction of related phrases into American English texts.

Figure 5: American English URR Myth (sm=1)

Figure 5. American English URR Myth (sm=1)

  • The uniquely American social gatherings to finish quilts predate the popular phrase “Underground Railroad,” but not the act of resistance embodied in the phrase “runaway slave.”
  • The two Google Books showing “Underground Railroad” mentioned in 1800 are incorrectly dated and are actually from 1860 and 1890.

As Figure 6 indicates, of any social gatherings for slaves with the potential for planning such an endeavor, a “quiltin” or “quilting party” are the most significant.

Figure 6: Terms for slave gatherings in American English during the URR (sm=0).

Figure 6. Terms for slave gatherings in American English during the URR (sm=0).

Looking at the events surrounding significant bumps on this chart:

  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 requires that runaway slaves be returned to their owners.
  • In 1854 the Republican Party forms.
  • In 1857 the Dred Scott decision states that the Bill of Rights does not apply to slaves.
  • In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, nominated by the newly formed Republican Party, runs for Senate.
  • In 1860 Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the United States.
  • January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation.

After looking at significant terms for slave gatherings, I examined phrases used to describe quilt gatherings, the act of resistance, and pieced quilt block patterns that were included in Bowden’s interview notes for Gracie Mitchell. Of particular note, in the WPA slave narrative interview with Walter Rimm, he describes a quilting party where a runaway slave escapes a trap set for him by patrollers, yelling “Bird in de air!” into the night as makes his getaway (Rimm 1936-1938, 2). This is of particular note because the “bird in the air” or “birds in the air” pattern is one of the quilt block patterns most frequently associated with the Underground Railroad quilt code myth. It is theorized that this pattern (aligned triangles) was hung on a railing, porch, or clothesline, with the triangles aiming North, South, East or West, so that escaped slaves could determine which direction to go. It does not prove anything, but the fact that a slave yells this particular phrase while running away from a quilting party is both interesting and significant.

Figure 7: URR terms and quilt patterns in American English (sm=1)

Figure 7. URR terms and quilt patterns in American English (sm=1)

The theory of a quilt code has many enthusiasts, but no concrete evidence. Quilt historians and Underground Railroad scholars have disputed and criticized the idea since it came to light.  An examination of the relative occurrence of all social slave events and acts of escape shows that quilt gatherings had the most potential for the correlation of activities, and looking at the quilt patterns associated with the myth demonstrates that the phrases “railroad crossing,” “breakfast dish,” “birds in the air,” and “half an orange,” are significantly used in the decade prior to Emancipation. However, figure 7 does not offer any compelling circumstantial evidence that would support or refute claims that these patterns were used for a quilt code.

Gracie Mitchell: Snapshot of an African American Quilter

I created a timeline for Gracie Mitchell, using Timeline JS, in order to present an interactive object that gives context for the era during which she lived. In addition to dates from her life that she described during the interview, I researched the significant dates for the quilt patterns that she showed her interviewer in 1938. Copying the template provided by the Timeline JS site, I created a Google Sheet with time-series data related to details from Gracie Mitchell’s interview transcript, where the Bernice Bowden included two pages of notes. While one notes page lists all of the quilts that Mitchell showed Bowden that day, another page lists details such as the exact duration of Mitchell’s residence in each state and the years that she moved. Following that, I researched relevant historical items (including still images, audio, and video) for each time span, topic mentioned, or location lived in, and placed it in the appropriate place chronologically. I set the timeline to begin with the date she was interviewed, so that to read it the user has to go backwards in time from 1938. This software is easy to use and produces digital objects that are simple to navigate.

Figure 8: Timeline for Gracie Mitchell

Figure 8. Timeline for Gracie Mitchell

Geospatial mapping – part one

For our first foray into mapping I used the Leaflet Maps Marker tool (a WordPress plug-in) to create interactive maps of 19th century quilt pattern occurrences, relying on data from the online collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum. Gracie Mitchell’s interview transcript provided me with a thematic grouping of quilt patterns to work with, and each map uses one of Leaflet Maps Marker’s symbols to represent a quilt pattern. The symbols are placed where the quilt was made. Clicking on the symbol provides a pop-up window with metadata for the particular quilt, and the aggregated map, shown in figure 9, depicts all of the maps layered together.

Figure 9: Aggregate map of 5 Gracie Mitchell designs

Figure 9. Aggregate map of 5 Gracie Mitchell designs

One constraint of this activity at the time that I worked on it was that only five of Gracie Mitchell’s quilt patterns were mapped. Of those that were mapped, most of the occurrences are concentrated in the Northeastern United States.

  • Broken Dishes: The earliest example of this design is from New England, circa 1860-1880.
  • Sawtooth: This is the second pattern design listed in the 1938 interview record. There is one early quilt (circa 1830-1850) that was produced in Alabama. However, most of the pattern occurrences (including the earliest, circa 1820-1840) are in modern day Pennsylvania; 19th-century quilters were likely inspired by the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Tulip Appliqué: Gracie Mitchell referred to appliqué as “laid work.” This design made it to Indiana by 1860.
  • Cactus: Because Gracie Mitchell called the design she completed “Prickle Pear,” it is possible that she appliquéd the design. However, the interviewer did not list “appliqué” or “laid work” as she did for other pieces that used that method.
  • Birds in the Air: This pattern is has a strong affiliation with the quilt code myth, and the phrase is used significantly in an ex-slave’s interview, as noted earlier. Ms. Bowden lists it as “Birds All Over the Elements” in the interview transcript.

This mapping exercise was both intriguing and frustrating, as it had incredible potential for analysis, but I was not working with the ideal tool. One year later I would return to this problem.

Network analysis

For my final Digital Humanities class project in the spring of 2012, I decided to preserve the data I curated during the project (Jan-May 2012) on a quilt top. Using Cytoscape, open source software for visualizing networks, I created a frequency map of the quilt block patterns that were mentioned by Gracie Mitchell in 1938 and also existed in the 19th century. The size of the block shows how often the quilt pattern occurs in the IQSCM collection. The colors of the log cabin block, the largest square (one side of the quilt), represent the five types of quilts. The quilt is framed with a border that provides the source code for the home page of the project website in May 2012, and the hanging loops around the edges represent the ethnicities of the women working together on an object at a quilting party. The network of quilt blocks is constructed by hand and by machine, using multicolored thread.

Figure 10. Planning notes, quilt front (log cabin block with quotes), and quilt back (remaining blocks)

To finish the quilt, I held a quilting party with some of my female friends, and after presenting in the quilt in class and at the Pratt SILS Student Showcase, I entered it in the show-and-tell at the Empire Quilters’ meeting in May 2012.


I created a video to capture the process of creating this quilt, titled Maker Unknown because 81% (141 out of 175) of the nineteenth-century quilts used for research in this project were listed in the IQSCM catalog as “Maker Unknown.” The quilt is dedicated to the slave women who labored as quilters, creating art for everyday use, and to all post-Emancipation quilters and quilt enthusiasts who keep their legacy alive.

  • The quilt was constructed in April and May 2012 in New York City (Brooklyn and Queens).
  • The quilt blocks were pieced by Deimosa Webber-Bey (Log Cabin, Tulip Appliqué, Orange Peel, Reel, Railroad Crossing, Tree of Life, Sunflower, Birds in the Air, Bird’s Nest, Ocean Wave, Drunkard’s Path, Leaf) and her grandmother, Marian Webber (Feathered Star, Carolina Lily, Sawtooth Star, Broken Dishes, Cactus, Whirligig).
  • The Log Cabin block was made by printing the data and images aggregated during the project, as well as the QR and source code for, onto fabric treated with Bubble Jet Set.
  • Quilting around the data strips on the Log Cabin block was done by hand in variegated thread by Tiana Grimes, Erica Schwartz, and Deimosa Webber-Bey at a quilting party, in keeping with nineteenth-century construction techniques; the hanging loops represent enslaved nineteenth-century quilters sitting around a quilt, and they are made from African (15/16) and Native American (1/16) fabric (in 9 out of 156 interviews used for this project, the ex-slave identified Native American heritage).
  • The information on the Log Cabin block faces out from the center in all directions so that it is best engaged when placed on a table, with observers seated around it making their own meaning of the information presented.
  • There is a suggested citation on the quilt top.

Ego network

During the spring of 2013, I took Dr. Sula’s Information Visualization course, and I returned to the problem of network analysis. For this visualization experiment I retrieved a dataset from the Quilt Index by searching for quilts made in the different geographic locations where Gracie Mitchell lived when she lived there. Her interviewer, Bernice Bowden, recorded the places where Mitchell lived during her life and the years that she lived in each. The result is a sample dataset of quilters, her contemporaries, and the patterns that were being made around her, by her contemporaries, throughout her life. While Gracie Mitchell’s quilts may not have physically survived, their occurrence – or instantiation – was documented by an authority, so the goal of this ego-centric network was to create a digital object that shows the context in which Gracie Mitchell quilted and chose the twenty-two patterns that she executed.

First, using Cytoscape, I uploaded the column with locations as the source, the quilter column as the interaction, the pattern column as the target, and the year column as an edge attribute. Then, in the Custom Graphics Manager pane I added a Sawtooth Star icon to the list. I changed all of the nodes to Sawtooth Stars, except for the locations, for which I found public domain state icons, and I changed the font to Courier, which resembles the typeface used in the WPA narratives. Then I selected the degree-sorted circle layout, so that Cytoscape would run a calculation that would allow me to use degree as a node attribute.

Next I chose to use the date attribute for continuous mapping of the edge color. This allowed me to create a gradient that identifies the period when the quilt was made; I chose to leave the edges black for quilts made during the era of slavery. Then I changed the node sizes so the degree of magnitude is 10x their in-degree number and the location node sizes are 10x the number of years that Gracie Mitchell lived in each place. I also changed the edge line style for Gracie Mitchell to dashed lines and the edge line style for all of the other quilters to dotted lines. At this point I made minute manual adjustments to the positions of a few nodes in order to minimize the overlap from the node labels. I shared my network with a few friends to get a sense of readability and what story it was telling, and I got a suggestion to position the locations relative to each other as they are geographically.

Figure 11: Edge weighted force directed layout

Figure 11. Edge weighted force directed layout

I was concerned that the network gives the impression that all of Gracie Mitchell’s quilts were made in 1938, so after manipulating the nodes awhile, I settled on placing the geographic place names in the center, Gracie’s quilts in an inner circle (degree sorted), and the quilts made around her in an outer circle (sorted alphabetically). This places Gracie in the center of the network and shows how the quilt patterns she chose fit into the larger context of where she was living and how she was influenced by the quilters around her. The network visualization depicts the patterns created in the states where Gracie Mitchell lived while she was there. The lines represent each quilter that executed the pattern and the line colors indicate the year the quilt was made.

Figure 12: Ego centric quilt network

Figure 12. Ego centric quilt network

With a growing sense of my final project for Information Visualization looking like a Reconstruction era American flag, I created an ego network with a circular layout, placing the Quilt Index data on the outer ring, Gracie Mitchell’s twenty-two designs in an inner ring, and the three residences in the center. The visualization infers the following:

  • Gracie Mitchell probably became familiar with certain patterns, such as the Feathered Star, Sawtooth Star, Log Cabin, and Sunflower, while living in Texas, where she resided until she was almost 40.
  • She possibly learned how to do the Tree of Life pattern while she was living in Chicago for eight years.
  • Only the Orange Peel overlaps with work that has survived from Arkansas.

In comparison with other quilters of her location and era, you can infer that her pattern selection was influenced by her experiences in other states. But the fact that very few of her designs overlap with contemporaries’ shows that she was experimental, and perhaps one of the first in her area to purchase a book of patterns. She does state that she had a book of patterns in her interview, lent to a friend and never returned (Mitchell 1938, 2).

Big Data and Its Affordances

At the beginning of the 2013 spring semester, I decided to use a more comprehensive database, the Quilt Index, to continue the project. The Quilt Index is somewhat comparable to WorldCat, in that it is a compilation of records from many different quilt collections. It is a free, open-access project of Matrix,  Michigan State University Museum, and the Quilt Alliance. There is less consistent metadata, but the pattern name and year are almost always present, which is essential to the interactive map problem that I was working on. Using the search tool, I was able to construct large comparison tables for item records, and then copy and paste them into Excel. After bringing the file into Google Refine, a software program for cleaning messy data, I was able to enforce a controlled vocabulary for the quilt pattern names in about 750 item records and format all of the dates similarly.

Using Google Refine, I clustered/merged the patterns and quilter names and then clustered/merged the dates as text facets in order to delete the “c” for circa in front of some dates and turn date ranges like “1860-1890” into the earliest potential occurrence (“1860”). After that I transformed the column into dates. After some additional cleaning, I was able to make several linked datasets available openly through Google Sheets.

Geospatial mapping – part two

Now that I had a significant dataset, occurrences of the twenty-two patterns Gracie Mitchell used during the years 1800-1849, I transferred it to a Google Fusion Table. With this brand new tool, I was able to view the quilt pattern occurrences on a full screen map and share a link where others could zoom in and out, and they would finally be able to filter by pattern! This was an improvement over the WordPress plug-in that I used during spring 2012, which only allowed me to add markers one at a time (and I never finished building the layers for all twenty-two patterns). The map shows all of the patterns with a different icon, and the user can zoom in and filter. Regarding icons, I chose images that somewhat related to the name of the pattern (for example, “drunkard’s path” is represented with a martini glass), but the best imagery for this map would be the actual quilt blocks. As this map is very cluttered, I knew that in the end I would be making small multiples in order to facilitate analysis of the data.

Geospatial mapping – part three

Returning to my mapping challenge once again, I used Tableau Public to create an individual map for each block pattern. Initially, I had a complex spreadsheet and cluttered maps, but I decided to only show the oldest instances of the quilt pattern documented in the quilt index (roughly ten or fewer data points) so that users can consider the possible geographical origin for each design. They can also compare the designs to each other, getting a sense of what patterns are the oldest in the dataset.

After uploading my dataset with 171 records into Tableau, I had to clean it. If the location for where a quilt was made was not clear in the full item record (in the “location,” “provenance,” “quilt history,” or “quiltmaker address” fields), then I entered a location based on the address of the owner (usually a relative/descendant of the quiltmaker), the person who brought the quilt in for donation or documentation. There were about a dozen instances where I entered the location of the contributor (to the Quilt Index) or the quilt collection. Next, I uploaded the file into Tableau and created a map visualization using the pattern field, which gave me horizontal maps. I used the pattern field again to create columns, which gave me a grid with square maps. The ones that I needed were in a diagonal from the top left of the visualization to the bottom right, so, using Microsoft Paint, I cropped screen shots of each pattern map for small multiples:


Overall I was pleased with the way that the maps turned out. Some of them are dense, and in order to fit them in the same size square you lose readability (such as with the Log Cabin, Sunflower, Tulip, and Reel), but it is a worthy sacrifice for the overall effect. I was able to save my visualization to the web with Tableau, and embed the maps into my blog.

Heat map

In order to get a sense of the popularity of each of the twenty-two patterns over time, I retrieved a dataset from the Quilt Index that spanned 1840-1940 – the 100 years prior to Gracie Mitchell’s WPA interview. Using Google Refine, I made authoritative choices for pattern names and dates (changing circa spans to a specific year), and then, using Tableau, I created a heat map with the data presented in five year “buckets,” where color codes frequency in the matrix.


At the end of the spring 2013 semester, I aggregated final versions of the information visualizations into a whole cloth design for a quilt, a second draft of the “Maker Unknown” quilt that I constructed the previous spring, and had the design printed onto fabric. This textile object and infographic is a more thoughtful execution of my research into Gracie Mitchell, and so it is named “Maker Known.” I decided to approach this infographic quilt with three questions:

  • How was Gracie Mitchell influenced by the quilt(er)s around her?
  • What is the geographical origin for each pattern?
  • How popular were each of these designs during the final decades of slavery in the U.S. and during Gracie Mitchell’s lifetime?

Figure 13: Data quilt 2.0 - "Maker Known"

Figure 13. Data quilt 2.0 – “Maker Known”

The overall data quilt is designed to resemble a Reconstruction-era flag, and the colors used are hues of red, white, and blue, where red is consistently used to emphasize significant data and the background white is a word cloud generated with Wordle from the RQP digital annotation exercise. The heat map runs across the bottom of the data quilt top, adding to the flag impression with more horizontal stripes. The heat map shows the frequency with which twenty-one of the twenty-two patterns were made; the log cabin pattern occurs the most frequently, making up almost half of the items retrieved for the data set, so it is highlighted with its own chart, separated from the heat map because it is an outlier and heavily skews the visualization when included. In the heat map a vibrant red codes high frequency and dark blue codes low frequency. In the chart for the log cabin, like the small multiple maps, red codes an item as older, blue as newer, and size codes frequency.

Overall this infographic quilt represents using data to place the historical figure Gracie Mitchell in context. The visualizations show that she was experimental and executed several quilt designs that were established patterns, but not frequently made by her contemporaries. She also created a few quilt tops that demonstrate her familiarity with traditional patterns that existed during the era of slavery and continued to be popular throughout her lifetime. I quilted the final tactile object at home, by machine, and then submitted this quilt and “Maker Unknown” to the International Quilt Festival.


Ultimately, “Maker Known” was accepted into the International Quilt Festival, and the quilt traveled from August 2013 to August 2014. In the fall of 2013, I traveled with my sister and grandmother to the show in Houston, Texas, where I saw my quilt hanging in one of the most highly esteemed quilt shows in the field. While I still feel that I am an amateur quilter, I know that the piece earned its place because of the eighteen months of research and design that went into it. It was important as well, as a personal accomplishment, to share the experience of traveling to Houston to see my work in the show with my grandmother in her eighty-fifth year. This is my proudest achievement to date.

Figure 14: "Maker Known" at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, TX

Figure 14. “Maker Known” at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, TX

Now that the quilt has been returned, it is my hope that traffic to the blog will continue and that readers will comment on and annotate the digital objects. These second, third, and fourth sets of eyes may identify ghosts that I could not see in the data. Ideally, this research will engage quilters as well as digital humanists and African American Studies scholars, whose knowledge of the craft can piece together the past and unleash the imaginative force of what might have been (Sharpe 2003, xii). These conversations will inform my future research.


Avery, Celestia, interview by Minnie B. Ross. 1936. Born in Slavery: A Few Facts of Slavery (November 30).   OCLC #47265597

Brackman, Barbara. 1993. Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. Paducah, KY: American Quilting Society.  OCLC #27812938

Davis, Minnie, interview by Sadie B. Hornsby. 1938. Plantation Life as Viewed by an Ex-slave. OCLC #47265597

Fellner, Leigh. 2006. “Betsy Ross redux: the Underground Railroad “Quilt Code.” Hart Cottage Quilts. (accessed September 20, 2014).

Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC #232663637

Library of Congress Manuscript Division. 2001. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. Washington DC, 2001. OCLC #47265597

Mitchell, Gracie, interview by Bernice Bowden. 1938. Born in Slavery: Arkansas Narratives, Volume II, Part 5 (November 1).  OCLC #47265597

Mullen, Mack, interview by J.M. Johnson. 1936. Born in Slavery: Mack Mullen (September 8). OCLC #47265597

Price, Janet, interview by Deimosa Webber-Bey. 2011. Collection Manager, International Quilt Study Center & Museum (November 1).

Rimm, Walter, interview by WPA. 1936-1938. Born in Slavery: Ex-slave stories (Texas).  OCLC #47265597

Sharpe, Jenny. 2003. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC #50479199



About the Author

Deimosa Webber-Bey, MSEd MSLIS, is a librarian and educator with a passion for young adult literature, graphic novels, postcolonial subjects, and quilting. An undergraduate English and African & African American studies major from Dartmouth College, she was a New York City Teaching Fellow and, in addition to several years in the classroom, she has worked in the public library system as a teen librarian. She is the Associate Librarian at Scholastic Inc. and has worked as an adjunct reference and special projects librarian at CUNY Brooklyn College. A regular contributor to Scholastic’s On Our Minds blog, she can also be found on Goodreads or Twitter @dataquilter.



Issue #6 of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy draws together scholarship that highlights the impact of digital technologies and tools internationally, with a special emphasis on Africa and the African diaspora. The call for this themed issue of JITP sought submissions that explore the ways in which digital methods of research, communication, and pedagogy have affected the heritage, policies, arts, histories, education, and activism of African and African diasporan communities. We teamed up with guest co-editors, Angel David Nieves (Hamilton College) and Marla Jaksch (The College of New Jersey), who served as the issue’s content experts in the field and have co-authored a conceptual introduction to the four articles on African and African diasporan themes included in this issue.

The four African/African diasporan articles cover a spectrum of work that reflects the growing use of digital technologies and practices across Africa and the African diaspora. These digital tools include the pedagogical uses in universities of online scholarly articles, the efforts of particular African indigenous peoples to use transcription and blogging software for cultural preservation and educational and political purposes, the uses of blogs and sophisticated digital humanities techniques, including data visualization, horizontal editing software, digital mapping, and big data analysis to explore African-American cultural practices historically, and the uses of various open source software to encourage transcultural digital dialogues linking U.S. and Ugandan college students. An additional fifth article included in this issue, though not specifically on Africa and the African diaspora, also employs videoconferencing, email technologies, and iPhones and iPads to encourage international dialogues and exchanges focusing on Shakespeare’s plays among North and South American, Asian, North African, and European undergraduates. All of the articles focus on projects—whether educational, cultural, or political—that digital technologies have enhanced and/or made possible. Together, they present a kaleidoscopic lens for viewing and understanding access, implementation, and use of technology from an international perspective.

Contributions to This Issue

In her piece “Runaway Quilt Project,” Deimosa Webber-Bey weaves together an intricate, two-pronged narrative that encompasses both her experience with digital exploration in the humanities and her curiosity and personal history with quilting, a cultural practice that traces its roots back to racial slavery and beyond. She draws together the concrete, tangible, and literal visualizations of story, time, and place that are represented in quilting and the two-dimensional art (if you will) of visual mapping and digital data visualization. Initiated in a digital humanities course for librarians taught by Interactive Technology and Pedagogy graduate and JITP author Chris Sula, the project grew beyond the scope of the original course assignment, encompassing a deep and broad exploration of digital tools from Google Ngrams and to Timeline JS and Tableau Public. Simultaneously, Webber-Bey created two “infographic” quilts that indelibly display the results of research conducted for this project. She went on to display one of these quilts, “Maker Known,” at the 2013 International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Webber-Bey’s scholarly contribution to this journal and the field encourages further exploration of digital tools that challenge “known” histories and data collection norms.

Thomas Fisher’s “Teaching Online Journals in Tanzania: Knowledge Production and the Digital Divideoffers a case study regarding the limits and pedagogical possibilities of using online journals to teach undergraduates who do not have a strong sense of research culture. Fisher, who taught for several years at Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), one of the newly created private universities in East Africa, expands the conversation about the digital divide and access to include the skills students need to use available scholarly resources. Fisher details how the digital divide in African universities is more a question of slow (sometimes very slow) Internet access, rather than no access at all. Teaching students how to use online journals to improve their research requires a willingness to be flexible and to rely on students’ longstanding knowledge of how to work around repeated problems with Internet access. Fisher concludes that it is not enough to make online academic journals accessible and to instruct students on how to use or apply these resources. Rather, teachers also need to take into consideration specific community practices with regard to study and research approaches that at times may include the desire to do communal and collaborative work rather than rely on more familiar Western notions of individual scholarly attainment.

Philip Kreniske’s “How the San of Southern Africa Used Digital Media as Educational and Political Tools” provides a case study in the uses of technology within communities of the San, an indigenous people spread across Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana. The article focuses on the ways the San use digital technologies, in Kreniske’s words, “to document, communicate and represent their values and struggles.” Despite severely limited Internet connectivity, lack of access to computers, and low literacy rates, some of the San are employing digital technologies to generate educational texts by using digital transcription services and web publishing of traditional oral folk tales. They also use blogs to communicate their own perspectives on critical political and educational debates across Southern Africa. Employing narrative analysis to assess the work of two well-educated San bloggers and editors from different areas in the San diaspora—Magdelena Lucas and Job Morris—Kreniske argues that the two bloggers used their online presences to consider challenging issues and formulate “critical positions on controversial topics such as the value of and access to an education, the pros and cons of cultural tourism, and the large-scale displacement of San peoples in Botswana.”

Richard Mutagejja Kabiito, Christine Liao, Jennifer L. Motter, and Karen Treat Keifer-Boyd’s piece, “Transcultural Dialogue Mashup,” grew from an action research project that, in each of its iterations, fostered a community of partnership and learning between geographically disparate universities located in Kampala, Uganda; University Park, Pennsylvania; and Helsinki, Finland. Drawing on theories of constructivist learning and culturally relevant pedagogy, participants structured their project to “make visible to self and others their cultural beliefs, practices, and values.” The project participants largely sought to utilize open source and no-fee technologies in their quest to communicate digitally. They encountered various speed bumps along the way while attempting to make use of digital tools that foster online collaboration, resulting from varying bandwidth and other access issues; however, they ultimately succeeded in creating a transcultural dialogue between students in the United States and Uganda, thus motivating participants to foster future collaborations and partnerships — both in person and via digital technologies.

Sheila Cavanagh’s “‘All Corners of the World’: The Possibilities and Challenges of International Electronic Education” describes the World Shakespeare Project (WSP), an international effort that originated at Emory University in Atlanta, that uses Shakespeare plays to create ongoing educational and cultural dialogues and exchanges among undergraduate students. Students in Argentina, India, and Morocco connect with students at Emory University in Atlanta, with students at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Michigan, and with incarcerated students at Monroe Correctional Facility in Washington State. Employing a mix of teleconferencing platforms like Vidyo as well as Skype and email, the students exchange ideas and responses to universal themes revealed in various Shakespeare plays and put on their own performances of the plays for fellow students. Cavanagh rightly concludes that “this approach to cooperative, international electronic education holds great promise” and that “the intersection of Shakespeare and videoconferencing portends a dynamic pedagogical future.”

Collaboration Through Digital Tools: Communication, Partnership, and Exploration

In an age when digital technology undeniably transforms the way we consume, produce, and share knowledge, scholarship that draws on the growing possibilities for digital collaboration helps us both theoretically and practically reimagine the reciprocal relationship between culture and technology. The spectrum of technologies explored by the authors in JITP Issue #6—from cell phones and screenshots to web-based apps and visual mapping—encourage readers to consider the power and purpose of these readily accessible technologies in fostering collaboration, communication, partnership, and exploration in instructional pedagogy and digital scholarship. Each of the articles offers ways to imagine “exploring and embracing new possibilities rather than reinforcing existing structures” (Waltzer 2010) in an effort to proactively draw together communities, histories, and voices that often find themselves outside of culturally and geographically “mainstream” settings. Such creative uses of everyday technologies encourage participants and readers to reimagine what it means to “collaborate meaningfully…to develop more empowering and accessible environments” in ever-changing times (Donovan 2013, 17).

We are excited to broaden JITP’s reach to consider the international intersections of digital technologies and digital pedagogies, with a special focus on Africa and the African diaspora. We are hopeful that the expanded focus in this issue will yield many more international and transnational contributions in the future.

Kiersten Greene and Steve Brier, Issue Co-Editors


Donovan, Gregory. 2013. “ Young People and the Proprietary Ecology of Everyday Data.” PhD diss., CUNY Graduate Center. Accessed October 31, 2014.

Waltzer, Lucas. 2010. “The Path to Blogs@Baruch.” Bloviate the periodic musings of sometimes know-it-all blog, July 13.



About the Authors

Kiersten Greene is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education in the Elementary Education Department of the State University of New York at New Paltz. Her research interests lie at the intersection of policy, teacher voice, and literacy instruction in public schooling, and she is particularly interested in how technology both informs and is informed by communication and pedagogy in classrooms. She received her PhD in the Urban Education Program at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has been a teacher and teacher educator for the last 15 years. When she is not teaching, researching, or writing, you can find her knitting or blogging. Kiersten can be found online at or @kag823 and reached via

Steve Brier is the founder and coordinator of the ITP certificate program, the Senior Academic Technology Officer, and co-director of the New Media Lab at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is also a professor of Urban Education and co-director of the Digital Humanities track in the M.A. in Liberal Studies program at the Graduate Center. He is a social and labor historian who has written extensively on digital technology and pedagogy and the history of public education. Steve can be reached at and @stevebrier on Twitter.

Africa is a Country? Digital Diasporas, ICTs, and Heritage Development Strategies for Social Justice


Guest Co-Editors:
Marla L. Jaksch, The College of New Jersey
Angel David Nieves, Hamilton College

We originally proposed this special section of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy because of the continued disconnect regarding knowledge and understanding of Africa and the rapid changes across sub-Saharan Africa with regard to digital technology. In discussions of digital change in Africa at professional conferences and presentations, we have been questioned repeatedly if pressing issues such as water and sanitation should be examined first instead of encouraging Western scholars to promote research on digital technology and the continent. According to some recent studies, by 2015 sub-Saharan Africa will have more persons with access to mobile phone networks compared to electricity access at home (Ali 2011; Buskens and Webb 2009, 71), so we find this sort of interrogation to be astonishingly naïve. However, only a few sectors, including healthcare, banking, and agriculture, can as yet demonstrate a correlation between emerging digital technologies and macroeconomic impact (Bowman, Mensah, and Urama 2014, 45).


“Remember Marikana,” Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa (Nieves 2014).

In light of the overwhelming lack of awareness in the West about information communication technologies (ICTs) in Africa, not to mention ignorance of cutting-edge digital projects, entrepreneurs and hacktivists, theorists and practitioners in Africa performing innovative scholarship in partnership with and about marginalized communities (Castells 1996; Mansell and Wehn 1998), we proposed a special issue that brought these topics together. At the same time we also wanted to engage with the many pedagogical and social justice issues related to this work. In the digital humanities, critical discussions about race, power, and privilege remain somewhat at the margins, or as #DHPoco scholar Adeline Koh has recently argued,

historicization of the digital humanities that situates it in a discursive field larger than humanities computing … [that] can be achieved by creating multiple genealogies for the digital humanities and by demonstrating that the field also encompasses new media studies, postcolonial science and technology studies, and digital research on race, gender, class, and disability and their impact on cultures around the world. (Koh 2014, 93-106)

Similarly, we would argue that by re-inscribing a more global digital humanities (O’Donnell 2012) we might begin to see the value in turning our attention to the geopolitical borders of the African continent. For example, Kenyan blogger, cyber-activist, and lawyer Ory Okolloh started the website Mzalendo to monitor that country’s once highly secretive parliament. Okolloh also helped to create Ushahidi, a crowd sourcing, web/mobile-based utility enabling citizen journalists and eyewitnesses all over the world to report violence and human rights atrocities through crisis mapping (Okolloh 2009, 65). Ushahidi is just one example of the many innovations transforming our understanding of digital advocacy projects that make space for critical voices in countries across Africa. Similarly, historian Keith Breckenridge’s Biometric State: the Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present (2014) examines South Africa’s role in promoting transnational biometric measurement and technological experimentation. In light of the technology transfer and information networks that originated in South Africa during the nineteenth-century (as outlined by Breckenridge), a very different present-day understanding of the “digital divide” is suggested.

Too often a sole focus on the “digital divide” fails to demonstrate how digital technologies are being used to advance humanistic inquiry into the dynamic work ongoing by individuals and communities either in Africa or across the African diaspora (Fuchs and Horak 2008, 100). By redirecting our focus beyond the established canons of where and how innovation takes place (and by whom), what may now be explored is a much more complicated constellation of important work that may have been previously overlooked, silenced, or diminished. Michele Pickover, Curator of Manuscripts of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Historical Papers, has raised important questions as to what is prioritized and, ultimately, digitized in African archives and how a “monolithic nostalgic legacy” is assigned greater value. Rather, the question that should be posed is who has agency to recover narratives of the past? The constant re-editing, depending on who controls the current nationalist discourse, also suggests different paths for historical legacy or historiography (Pickover 2014, 7). How do we trace the genealogy of this work? No one starting point or single path is indicated. Instead it will be a constellation of paths that will trace the radical and sometimes diverse transformations with regards to education, society, economy, and political liberation and self-determination in Africa over the last 50 years.

Information Communication Technologies & Digital Diasporas

One interesting aspect of ICTs includes the trajectories of digital projects beyond corporate banking and communications to include archives and data curating, independent film and video, art-making and music production, pedagogical practices, and community-based digital activism. The individual use of ICTs that re-mix their intended use include public participation graphical information systems (GIS), cell-phone delivered prenatal education, and feminist projects that address the stubborn gender digital divide. The ways that such practices use ICTs to facilitate their own empowerment bring attention to the ways that gender impacts ICT development and demonstrate how ICTs are impacted by such use and are in fact gendered (Antonio and Tuffley 2014).

Over the past decade, scholars have witnessed rapid changes in both legacy-industrial and emerging technology infrastructures across the African continent (Wilson and Wong 2006, 30, 120, 147). The tired and long-held post-colonial narratives of disease, war, and famine across Africa are now being re-written in the face of rapid redevelopment. This process goes hand-in-hand with multinational corporations’ continued desire to tap into the emerging markets there. Remarkably, Internet educational technologies coupled with the staggering number of mobile phone subscriptions—including innovations such as feature-rich smartphones, dual-SIM card phones, and cash flow back to the continent through e-remittances—have had a significant impact on all levels of African society.

Some have argued that an ICT revolution is already taking hold in countries such as Kenya and South Africa, where the international community has made political and economic investments in reform and infrastructure (Kelly and Rosotto 2012, 107). The growing influence of Asian investment across eastern Africa—particularly Chinese investment—should not be categorized simply as an opening-up of new market investments in natural resource extraction. Rather, we would argue that while ICTs might have an enormous positive impact on rural and urban populations, it might also usher in a kind of second or third wave of colonial rule over emerging knowledge systems—a rule that may be naively perceived as benign global transnationalism by many Western outsiders (Buskens and Webb 2009, 77). Significantly, according to the latest published figures 84.9 percent of the population in North America uses the Internet versus 21.3 percent penetration in Africa (MMG 2014), so further overseas investment—and influence—may be taken as a given.

African states, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and some indigenous community-based organizations are working collaboratively to push for universal access to the Internet and the quickly growing cell phone market in southern and eastern Africa. Many of these changes have been made possible, because in the 1990s and early 2000s transnational organizations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations (UN), and the World Bank advocated for new policies and practices to expand ICT development across Africa. The growing African telecommunications market encouraged reforms that helped to bolster ICT infrastructure. Notable infrastructure developments across the African continent include the SAT-3/WASC or South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable; SEACOM connecting most of Eastern Africa through a submarine cable operator; EASSy (East African Submarine Cable System); and the National ICT Broadband Backbone. This infrastructure has been accompanied by a corresponding digital migration process freeing up broadband/bandwidth space, resulting in a reduction of prices throughout the region (Koutroumpis 2009, 471).

Our interest in these issues is not to perpetuate Western scholarly preoccupations with the “digital divide”—something that clearly persists in Africa. Instead, we are proposing that a kind of flattening out of this divide in southern and eastern Africa now exists and is worthy of further investigation. As such, Africa should no longer be viewed through a monolithic continent-wide paternalistic lens—a lens that is unable to focus on country-specific research and analysis involving digital technologies. Specifically, African-based institutions including NGOs, universities, and entrepreneurs are increasingly leading efforts to solve African problems by assuming greater control over heritage and development issues using information technologies. Development studies and recent scholarship in ICTs in Africa have highlighted the importance of new digital technologies as tools for furthering social justice while at the same time underlining pervasive educational, economic, and political inequalities in their application (Bablola 2014). How are ICTs and digital tools being used, challenged, implemented, and incorporated in grassroots and institutional development in Africa and in the Diaspora?

As guest co-editors of this special section of JITP, we hope this effort can be the start of more critical engagements with issues of race, gender, power, imperialism, and neoliberalization that help to expand conversations across scholarly communities, especially those communities in the digital humanities that remain exclusively white, homogenous, or largely centralized in the West. Changes in the field here in the United States are rapidly taking place because of the work of scholars such as Lisa Nakamura, Alondra Nelson, Tara McPherson, Mary Corbin Sies, and Siobhan Senier (to name but a very few) — scholars who actively disrupt mainstream trends in the digital humanities and digital studies by providing new sources for archive-making, publication, and preservation through feminist and intersectional analysis.[1] These inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary frameworks and forms of analysis give us important models to use in other contexts and knowledge communities outside the US. Most recently the collaborative work of scholars and activists in #DHPoco including Adeline Koh, Roopika Risam, and Dorothy Kim (; and FemTechNet ( have brought attention to a host of these and other complex issues.

In November 2014 ICT University in Yaounde, Cameroon, was the site for the sixth annual ICTs for Africa (ICT4Africa) International Conference. This year alone three major research universities in the Global North are coordinating workshops and lecture series including Princeton University’s “Black Studies in the Digital Age”; York University’s “African Diaspora 2.0: Oral Sources and Digital Humanities”; and the University of Michigan’s “African Studies in the Digital Age.” The University of Michigan’s week-long workshop, in collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand, is the second installment of a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation entitled “Joining Theory and Empiricism in the Remaking of the African Humanities: A Transcontinental Collaboration,” a five-year interdisciplinary research and teaching partnership between the African Studies Center at Michigan and the Institute for Social and Economic Research at WITS. Similarly, several important volumes have also appeared, including Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (Nakamura 2007); Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace (Everett 2009); Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age (Banks 2010); and African Studies in the Digital Age: DisConnects? (Barringer and Wallace 2014). Few of these works focus entirely on the many digitization projects, digital platforms, and community-engaged partnerships that have emerged over the past two decades on the African continent. Unfortunately, a focus only on completed works fails to look critically at the many realities facing so many of these digital projects, particularly financial and human resources in both the Global North and South. Proposed projects or proof-of-concepts are also significant interventions because they help to raise awareness of issues impacting national libraries, local historical societies, and diasporic communities across the Global South.

The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy has made clear that they see this special issue as the start of an ongoing discussion concerning Africa and the African Diaspora and the use of digital technologies for research, teaching and learning. Some projects and digital initiatives worth further exploration include:

  • The Ulwazi Programme ( collects and shares local knowledge and histories in the form of a wiki enabling contributions and modifications from multiple users in English and isiZulu.
  • Map Kibera ( was launched in 2009 as a project dedicated to help create essential maps for the residents of the city’s slums in Nairobi, Kenya. Map Kibera also deploys other on-line tools including software for information collection, visualization, and interactivity provided by Ushahidi (
  • Annie Bunting of York University ( and her multidisciplinary team of scholars and community organizers work with victims of forced marriages in post-conflict societies, including Sierra Leone and Rwanda, to gather new video testimony of these crimes.
  • Jaksch and Nieves began work on the Virtual Freedom Trail Project in 2010 with the intention of creating an open-source, community archive and web-based virtual, living museum centering on the marginalized voices and experiences in the struggle for liberation in Tanzania (see,
  • The Soweto Historical GIS Project (SHGIS) seeks to build a multi-layered historical geographic information system database and geospatially accurate 3D environment that explores the social, economic, and political dimensions of urban development under South African apartheid regimes (1904-1994) in Johannesburg’s all-black township of Soweto.
  • The Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) ( is a global movement that seeks to use mobile technologies to improve the health and lives of mothers in developing nations.

We hope the work in this special section will lead to further investigation and a robust integration of Africa-related work into the emerging canon of scholarship.



Ali, Laila. 2011. “The digital revolution in sub-saharan Africa.” Al Jazeera Online, 12 October.

Antonio, Amy, and David Tuffley. 2014. “The Gender Digital Divide in Developing Countries.” Future Internet 6 (4).

Bablola, Titlola. 2014. “The Digital Humanities and Digital Literacy: Understanding the Digital Culture in Nigeria.” Digital Studies/Le champ numerique 4.

Banks, Adam J. 2010. Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press. OCLC 633139665.

Bowman, Warigia, Marianne Mensah, and Kevin Urama. 2014. “Information and telecommunication technologies in Africa: a potential Revolution.” Innovation for Sustainable Development. Edited by Jean-Yves Grosclaude, Rajendra K. Pachauri, and Laurence Tubiana. New Delhi: TERI. OCLC 883178928.

Breckenridge, Keith. 2014. Biometric State: the Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press. OCLC 881387739.

Buskens, Ineke and Anne Webb. 2009. African Women and ICTs: Investigating technology, gender and empowerment. London: Zed Books. OCLC 321068837.

Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell. OCLC 43092627

Everett, Anna. 2009. Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace. Albany: SUNY. OCLC 833290225.


Fuchs, Christian, and Eva Horak. 2008. “Africa and the digital divide.” Telematics and Informatics 25. OCLC 4662516406.

Kelly, Tim, and Carlo Maria Rosotto, eds. 2012. Broadband Strategies Handbook. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications. OCLC 784885717.

Koh, Adeline, and Roopika Risam. Postcolonial Digital Humanities: Global explorations of race, class, gender, sexuality and disability within cultures of technology.

Koh, Adeline. 2014. “Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities: Beyond the Social Contract of Humanities Computing,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 25 (1). OCLC 5582686267.

Koutroumpis, Pantelis. 2009. “The Economic Impact of Broadband on Growth: A Simultaneous Approach.” Telecommunications Policy 33 (9). OCLC 450806382.

LCHP (Lakeland Community Heritage Project). 2014. Lakeland Community Heritage Project: Preserving the history of African Americans in College Park, Maryland.

Mansell, Robin, and Uta Wehn de Montalvo. 1998. Knowledge societies: Information technology for sustainable development. Oxford: Oxford University Press. OCLC 473804582.

MMG (Miniwatts Marketing Group). 2014. “World Internet Users and Statistics and 2014 World Population Stats.”

Nakamura, Lisa. 2007. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC 781375257.

O’Donnell, Daniel. 2012. “In a Rich Man’s World: Global DH?” dpod blog (blog), November 2.

Okolloh, Ory. 2009. “Ushahidi, or ‘testimony’: Web 2.0 tools for crowd sourcing crisis information.” Participatory Learning and Action 59 (1).

Pickover, Michele. 2014. “Patrimony, Power and Politics: Selecting, Constructing and Preserving Digital Heritage Content in South Africa and Africa.” Paper presented at International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) World Library and Information Congress (WLIC), Libraries, Citizens, Societies: Confluence for Knowledge, Lyon, France, 16-22 August.

Senier, Siobhan. 2014. Writing of Indigenous New England: a review blog by Siobhan Senier.

Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular.

Wilson, Ernest J. and Kelvin R. Wong. 2006. Negotiating the Net in Africa: The Politics of Internet Diffusion. Ann Arbor: Lynne Rienner Publishers. OCLC 226255963.


[1] Siobhan Senier’s (University of New Hampshire) work with indigenous communities in New England is a significant model for collaboration with long marginalized and silenced voices,; Mary Corbin Sies (University of Maryland) has been working to recast the relationship between African American communities that border many American universities and campuses across the United States, (LCHP 2014); Tara McPherson (University of Southern California) has developed an online journal and publishing platform that have both radically changed digital publishing in the American academy, (Vectors).



About the Authors

Dr. Marla Jaksch is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and affiliate faculty of African American Studies at the College of New Jersey. In 2009-2010 Jaksch was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania where she conducted research and taught . Her current teaching and research interests include the gendered and racialized dimensions of ICTs and STEM and their implications for women and girls.

Dr. Angel David Nieves is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the American Studies Program at Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y. He received his interdisciplinary Ph.D. in the History of Urban Development and Africana Studies from Cornell University. Nieves is currently Co-Directing Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), a $1.75 million Mellon Foundation Grant funded project ( Nieves’ scholarly work and community-based activism engages critically with issues of race and the built environment in cities across the Global South.

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