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52 minutes, 2003, Congo / France Director: Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda in English, French, Jula and Yoruba with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
"Asks important questions about how digital technology is being utilized in Africa today and how it might be used in the service of African peoples tomorrow. I highly recommend it for courses in science, communications, anthropology and technology."
Michael Leslie, University of Florida
"Statistics show that Africa is well behind the rest of the world in terms of information technologies. But the numbers fail to show the original ways Africans are using the little that is available. Afro@digital fills this gap with its eloquent illustrations of the digital revolution in Africa."
"Afro@digital is an important film that undermines stereotypes of African primitivism and backwardness. Although African are increasingly connected to worldwide electronic networks, they are connected in ways that ensure and extend important African traditions?"
Afro@Digital begins with a provocative question: ‘Why speak of new technologies on a continent which wakes up and goes to sleep to the terrorism of poverty?’ In other words, how can Africa escape the logic of poverty and unequal development by making sure that digital technology doesn’t pass it by, become an agent of neo-colonialism or marginalize it still further? As Nigerian filmmaker Ola Balogun warns: “We must ask what is the purpose of this technology and what type of technology is most appropriate to us?...Technology is not a value in itself.”
The documentary asserts that computing technology may in fact be indigenous to Africa. The new field of ethno-mathematics has discovered the oldest calculating tool in the world in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Named the ‘Ishango bone’ after its place of origin, it uses a base twelve system devised 15,000 years before the construction of the pyramids. Despite the relative scarcity of computers on the continent, the largest source of coltan, a product used in most microprocessors, is the Congo.
John Akomfrah, an English-based film and video maker, encourages viewers to look at digital technology not just as a tool but as a mindset. He introduces the Greek concept of entelechy, to explain how a given technology can be developed according to differing socially embedded objectives. He sees an implicit symmetry between the internet and human intelligence itself since both are non-linear, random and subject to endless erasure.
Afro@Digital then looks at the impact of various digital technologies across a broad swath of present-day African life. The first cell phones were introduced in the Congo in 1986; today they have flooded the continent circumventing the often unreliable and expensive land-based telephone networks. Can they allow Africa to leapfrog into the digital age avoiding the long, incremental path of telephonic development of the West? Combining traditional and modern, a marabout in Burkina Faso and a Yoruba babalao say that cell phones allow them to keep in close touch with their devotees around the world.
Oumou Sy, a Senegalese fashion designer, travels around rural areas with a ‘cyberbus,’ a video projection system to advertise her collection. She has created jobs for 200 workers and has incorporated computer components into a traditional African aesthetic. At the same time a musician uses digital technologies to remix Aka pygmy music to make the instrumental track more prominent. Computers are particularly good at generating loops of reiterated rhythmic patterns characteristic of both traditional and contemporary African music.
Mactar Syllar, director of radio and television in Senegal, points out that transportation between African countries is difficult; teleconferences and the internet can make Pan-African communications much simpler for businesses, governments and individuals . We witness a teleconference between students in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Congo and Senegal. The internet may also have a use in tying together students in ‘distance learning’ courses. But, like Americans, Africans express mixed emotions about privacy and pornography on the internet.
Afro@Digital asks how digital technology can best serve the interests of Africa? For example, it could be used simply to let the ruling elites and global corporations further monopolize the flow of information within society. Or it could take advantage of the internet’s multi-directionality to become an instrument for increased governmental transparency and citizen participation, including the participation of African professionals who live abroad and who want to assist their native countries. Young filmmakers point out that the comparative cheapness of high quality digital equipment now allows them to create, preserve and share their own memory of themselves and aspirations for the future. Although the internet and digital television will inevitably open Africa to further globalization, this documentary shows Africans responding positively by developing their own vigorous presence in a new international, digital cultural ecology.