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Ory Okolloh, the pan-African blogger

By David McKenzie, CNN
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Ory Okolloh 'Kenyan Pundit'
  • Technology activist Ory Okolloh is one of Africa's most recognized bloggers
  • She created Ushahidi, a website enabling citizens and groups to report violence and map it
  • The site has expanded across the world, including reports about politics and crime

Every week CNN's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Kenyan information and technology activist Ory Okolloh.

Watch the show on Saturdays 1130 and 1630 GMT, Sundays 1700 GMT and Monday 1130 and 1630 GMT.

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (CNN) -- Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh has lit a fire under the African blogosphere with her posts about politics, human rights and other controversial issues.

Better known as "Kenyan Pundit" -- the name of her blog where she writes about politics, her country and the continent -- Okolloh is part of a band of pioneers striving to change the stereotypes about Africa by giving people easy access to information.

With a group of internet activists, she started Mzalendo in 2006, a website that tracks the performance of Kenyan members of parliament. They put up biographies of politicians, tracked their voting record and allowed Kenyans at home and abroad to comment.

She also co-founded the mobile-informed website Ushahidi after she traveled to Kenya to vote in the 2007 elections, which turned violent.

Combining mapping with user-generated witness reports, Ushahidi, or "testimony," tracked incidents of deaths, rioting, looting and rape, all sent in by concerned Kenyans.

The code that supports the site is available for free. Ushahidi has been used to track violence in the Eastern Congo, monitor elections in India and Mexico, and even map crime in Atlanta.

Okolloh spoke to CNN's African Voices about her projects, the impact of technology and the promise of Africa.

Video: Ory Okolloh on Mzalendo
Video: Ory Okolloh on innovative Africa

CNN: How has the internet and social media allowed people to talk to each other in Africa?

Ory Okolloh: In Kenya particularly, we have a lot to say -- we're sort of obsessed with politics. We have three nightly news broadcasts, predominantly bad politics. But what I think [the internet] changed is the sense that ... you can share information without being scared that someone is going to come and arrest you. We've made huge progress.

CNN: One of the reasons, it seems, that you and others blog is that they didn't [always] see the stories they wanted to see. Is that part of the reason people write?

OO: Sure. On a personal level and especially for young people, as much as things had opened up, our stories were not being reflected in the media. But if you're growing up in an urban environment, it's very dynamic, very hip ... Blogging and Facebook and SMS and all these tools ... allow people to ... reflect themselves and find other like-minded people.

CNN: Is internet Africa more democratic, then, than real on-the-ground Africa?

OO: The diversity is reflected a lot more. And I guess because it's virtual, maybe people feel comfortable saying a lot of things they wouldn't say because it's not socially acceptable.

That's what I see: Democratic in terms of personal expression, definitely a lot more than in real life.

CNN: The mood on [Kenya's 2007] election day was euphoric and then it went terribly wrong. What was it like for you to see that unfold?

OO: It was so emotional. It was my first vote, which was a very big deal for me. This sense of "whatever the decision is we'll accept it but we're going to exercise our right to vote." Especially for young people because it was the first time they'd turned out in such huge numbers and were not cynical about the process, I loved seeing that. And to go from that to what happened afterwards was heartbreaking.

CNN: How did Ushahidi get started?

OO: It was a quick response to the violence. I started blogging after the results. And what I was seeing and hearing, especially from people that live in the commons, was not being reflected on the news. Most of the TV stations had cartoons going on and the radios had music and then you look outside and you're seeing smoke all over Kibera.

"We have been able to demonstrate that ... we can create software that can be used all over the world, that we have that kind of talent in Africa.
--Ory Okolloh
  • Kenya
  • Africa
  • Blogs and Blogging
  • Internet

And it was very surreal, sort of like a North Korea kind of moment, the disconnect between the reality and what you're hearing. So I opened up my blog for people to send their stories and the volume said if this is just a few people who are following my blog, what are we missing. [It was] just driven by this fear that maybe they'll just brush over this thing and say nothing happened.

CNN: Have you been surprised by how much this idea has caught on?

OO: We've all been surprised. When the four of us quit our day jobs to do this full time, we sort of said, "yeah, OK, we'll open source it, maybe take a year then go back to what we were doing before." But not only the uptake but the different uses of it -- the potential that people see in the tool and what it's ended up becoming -- has been a huge surprise.

CNN: What do you feel about this?

OO: It's pride -- I think that we have been able to demonstrate that we cannot just consume software, that we can create software that can be used all over the world, that we have that kind of talent in Africa. And that we've been able to capture the imagination, and it's a good story, right? It's a story that you don't hear enough.

CNN: What do you see as the promise of Africa? Why do you have this optimism about the continent?

OO: Because there's so much potential -- and if I look at my own life story, that even with all the challenges of the education system and how we grew up, we're able to go out there and excel and get into the Harvards and the MITs and the Stanfords and do really well. So you have to ask yourself, "If we just shifted things just a little bit, improve the education just slightly, what could be the roll-on effects of that?"

And also, at the end of the day, there's no place like home. There's that feeling when I land, get to Nairobi, talking Swahili with the immigration guy, and there's always stuff happening. It's a feeling that I don't have anywhere else in the world. And it's always that you can't get much worse, there's potential. I've never seen or been to a place that has as much potential.

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