Ory Okolloh – Women power in Africa
Through her Internet tool ‘Ushahidi’, Ory has given a voice to people all over the world who would otherwise not be heard. It has been a global success. ‘Ushahidi’ has been used for monitoring elections in many different countries, it has helped people find their family relatives again after the earthquake in Haiti, and it has enabled millions of Kenyan slum dwellers in Kibera to be visible on our world map.
It was eight years ago while she was studying law at Harvard that Ory began blogging. Her goal was to harness the Internet to promote the development and democratisation of Kenya, the country with the second highest corruption ranking in the world, and to connect Africa with the rest of the world. In Nairobi, a million people fight for their daily survival in Kibera alone, the biggest slum in Africa. And this is where the bloody unrest was sparked off at the beginning of 2008, throwing the whole country into chaos and misery. Ory comes from a middle-class Kenyan family but it was her ambition and the support from her parents and the community that enabled her to study in the USA. She graduated with top marks. After the young lawyer graduated, the legal practices in Washington D.C. were all clamouring for her attention but Ory decided to return to Africa. There, she signed up to work as a lawyer for a year for the Human Rights Commission in Nairobi in order to support the fight for racial equality, human rights and democracy in her home country.
Ory lives with her husband and two daughters in South Africa and commutes back and forward between Nairobi and Johannesburg. In her blog ‘Kenyan Pundit’, she writes about the highs and lows of her daily life in Johannesburg and Nairobi and comments on politics and society in Kenya. During the last presidential election at the end of 2007, she travelled to Nairobi full of positive expectation to exercise her civic right to vote for the first time in her life at the age of 30. But the government manipulated the elections and civil war-like unrest erupted in what had hitherto been a stable country. As Kenya sank deeper into chaos, Ory blogged ‘live’ almost continuously for 72 hours from Nairobi to give the world an uncensored version of the tumultuous events during the third free elections in Kenya.
All over the city there were violent protests, bloody clashes with the police and racially-motivated massacres between the different tribes. For days, Ory and her family, including her young daughter, were trapped in their flat. Ory updated the election results hourly and reported the disturbances, the dead and the situation verging on civil war across the country. Thousands of Kenyans around the world followed the elections via Ory’s blog, posted comments on her entries and the events taking place and appealed to the warring parties to see sense. When, during a three-day media blackout, the government banned the TV and radio stations from reporting after the alleged election fraud, Ory’s blog was one of the few voices which managed to get information out of the country. Then, suddenly, Ory’s blog went silent. It took her 12 hours before she found a way to reactivate her blog.
Out of this emergency situation, Ory and two blogger friends developed the Internet tool ‘Ushahidi’, on which all reported atrocities and disturbances were recorded immediately. Those involved were able to publish their experiences direct by text messaging or email, and the crisis points were localised on a map. This gave the local population an up-to-date overview of the danger zones and centres of unrest. It also meant that auxiliary and peace-keeping forces as well as NGOs could rush to their aid. But the purpose of ‘Ushahidi’ is also to record all massacres, rapes and movement of refugees so that the victims have a face and a story and are not forgotten. Kofi Annan managed to broker a peace treaty between the two opponents, yet thousands of displaced people still live in refugee camps.
Ory continues her struggle for Kenya undeterred by the harsh backlash caused by these events, and has expanded ‘Ushahidi’ into a tool for crisis situations and election monitoring throughout the world. Not only that but also to give a voice to those whose concerns had until then been ignored.
Ory got her first breakthrough when ‘Ushahidi’ won the ‘Netsquared Challenge’ for being the best social Internet project in the world and received support for further development “… as this new Internet tool provides an in-depth view of events that are rocking societies all over the world and promotes the exploitation of technology for social engagement”. The World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos awarded Ory the accolade of ‘Technology Pioneer’ for inventing ‘Ushahidi’.
Ory’s other political blog ‘Mzalendo’, which she started a few years ago with a Kenyan blogger, focuses on Kenya’s political situation. In this blog, a critical eye is cast over the policies of the young democracy, which is continually rocked by bloody unrest, corruption scandals and attempted coups. And parliamentary debates are being made transparent for the first time because the public press never reported on government activities until now. Nobody had the courage to take on this hot potato. Time and again, attempts have been made by those in government to intimidate Ory and her blogger colleagues with serious threats because they recognise that ‘Mzalendo’ is becoming a moral authority in Kenyan politics that is more and more difficult to ignore. But Ory continues to fight for democratisation in her country and wants to be at the forefront reporting on the next presidential elections, held probably in 2013.
Ory belongs to a new generation of self-confident, educated African women who, despite vehement opposition from the traditionalists, will go their own way and use their blogs to denounce the double standards, suppression and corruption in African countries. Several times a year, the critical blogger cum lawyer is invited by various international organisations all over the world to speak as an expert on topics such as ‘Citizen Journalism’ and ‘Opportunities in modern communications for Africa’, and to talk about the situation in Kenya. Since 2011, she has been working at Google as Policy Manager for Africa and has great hopes for the growing spread of the Internet across the African continent. Ory is recognised as one of the most important young voices coming out of Africa.