The Ségou villages are scattered across a flat and arid landscape with withering baobab trees lining the distance. This Malian region is known for its rural populations that make a living through a variety of agricultural activities, as well as cattle raising and other small-scale commerce. The Ségou region is about a four-hour drive from the capital city of Bamako, and in any one of the approximately two hundred rural villages, electricity and potable water are scarce. Many residents eventually choose to migrate to the larger cities in search for better educational and employment opportunities.
It was in one of these rural villages called Bamoussobougo where Rising Voices grantee project coordinator Boukary Konaté grew up. He had been tending to his family's livestock when a random encounter with a police sergeant, who took an active interest in him encouraging him to pursue his education. He describes this meeting and its result in a 2009 interview on Global Voices.
One evening, I was shepherding cows with other kids when we met a man on the road, a sergeant. His Suzuki motorcycle was broken. His name was Lassinè Traoré.
While we helped him, he asked if I went to school. I said “No”. He went to see my father and advised him to send me to school. For weeks, he came back, until my father gave his consent. Sergeant Traoré told me, “There I leave you. You now have the duty to do well at school to honor me, and later to take care of yourself and your parents.”
I walked six kilometers to the nearest school for years until I moved to Bamako to attend high school. I did bricklayer work and odd jobs on week-ends to make ends meet with my state grant. My mother wanted me to succeed in school, she did everything in her power.
Boukary soon became a very prolific blogger and one of the leading advocates for using his native language of Bambara on the internet. Even though he had more regular access to the internet in Bamako, he never once forgot where he came from and the stark contrast in terms of internet access in these villages. When developing the idea for the RV project Ségou Villages Connection, Boukary wanted to be a mentor to young people who are in a similar position in which he was in years ago. Perhaps one of these young people can become the next Boukary, as a tireless advocate for digital information and communication across Mali.
Helping people to get online where they can tell their stories and show a different side of the Ségou villages is not particularly easy. The lack of electricity, the lack of internet cafes outside of the administrative capital of Ségou, and economic limitations are just some of these challenges facing the project. However, the availability of mobile coverage even in these rural villages has proven to be an exciting opportunity for an alternative way to access these digital conversations.
Instead of waiting for internet connections to arrive and electricity coverage to improve, the grantee project seeks to use existing technology and the residents’ habits of using mobile phones. Focusing on the mobile phone, the option to tweet using SMS has always been a major feature in Twitter. Unfortunately, none of the national Malian carriers offer a short code, which would have allowed users to send tweets for the price of a local SMS. Some companies that offer short codes also provide the option to receive tweets from select users, replies, and direct messages without cost.
In those countries where short codes are not offered, there still is the option to send tweets using an international “long” code. For the price of an international SMS, users can tweet by sending a SMS thousands of kilometers away to Finland, Germany or the UK where the update can automatically publish to their Twitter account. A major drawback to this method is that the communication is one-way, as the user cannot receive any replies or direct messages. Despite this, it is still a step in the right direction.
It was this method that was taught to two of the project participants Oumar Dembélé and Yaya Coulibaly at a recent workshop held in the town of Ciznana. Previously, the two had been sending regular SMS to Boukary so that he could transcribe and republish on the project blog. Naturally this method was not very efficient and depended on a intermediary to publish for the two participants. This way, they can publish directly to their Twitter account whenever they feel they have something to share with their followers. The project is also exploring alternatives to help facilitate two-way communication so that the two rural Twitter users can receive feedback on their phones. A small portion of the project funds is used to purchase airtime so that the cost of sending SMS do not come out of their own pocket.
Now that a new system was established, there is an ongoing challenge to motivate and encourage the participants to continue to tweet describing what is happening around them. In future posts, we'll re-introduce you to Oumar and Yaya and share some of their recent tweets.