Text-Messaging in Africa
Summary and Keywords
The concept of Africa requires reflection: what does it mean to study a social phenomenon “in Africa”? Technology use in Africa is complex and diverse, showing various degrees of access across the continent (and in the Diaspora, and digital social inequalities—which are part and parcel of the political economy of communication—shape digital engagement. The rise of mobile phones, in particular, has enabled the emergence of technologically mediated literacies, text-messaging among them. Text-messaging is defined not only by a particular mode of communication (typically written on mobile phones, visual, digital), but it also favors particular topics (intimate, relational, sociable, ludic) and ways of writing (short, non-standard texts that are creative as well as multilingual). The genre of text-messaging thus includes not only short message service (SMS) and (mobile) instant-messaging (which one might call prototypical one-to-one text messages), but also Twitter, an application that, like texting, favors brevity of expression and allows for one-to-many conversations. Access to Twitter is still limited for many Africans, but as ownership of smartphones is growing, so is Twitter use, and the African “Twittersphere” is emerging as an important pan-African space. At times, discussions are very local (as on Ghanaian Twitter), at other times regional (East African Twitter) or global (African Twitter and Black Twitter); all these are emic, folksonomic terms, assigned and discussed by users. Although former colonial languages, especially English, dominate in many prototypical text messages and on Twitter, the genre also provides important opportunities for writing in African languages. The choices made in the digital space echo the well-known debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: the Africanization of the former colonial languages versus writing in African languages. In addition, digital writers engage in multilingual writing, combining diverse languages in one text, and thus offer new ways of writing locally as well as shaping a digitally-mediated pan-African voice that draws on global strategies as well as local meaning.
1. Reflections on the Topic
In March 2016, the household in which I live was selected for South Africa’s community census. The census questions covered a wide range of topics: from access to piped water and electricity, sewage removal, and the material from which the house is built, to educational achievements and income. As we came to the questions concerning consumer goods (fridge, stove, TV, mobile phone, computer, etc.), the Statistics South Africa fieldworker laughed and commented: “Who doesn’t have a cell phone!” Thus, while there exist enormous differences in living conditions between South Africans, ranging from mansions with large swimming pools to shacks with communal taps and rural homesteads, there exists one material object that almost everyone has access to: a mobile phone.
This article explores text-messaging in Africa. The title requires some discussion and reflection. Text-messaging is conventionally used to refer to SMSes sent via mobile phones (where SMS stands for short message service; the service became available in the early 1990s). I have argued elsewhere (Deumert, 2016; Deumert & Lexander, 2013), that text messages are best understood as a genre: they constitute not just a specific mode of communication (written, visual, and transmitted digitally), but within this mode, they enact a genre that favors the use of specific linguistic forms, encourages certain topics and types of interactions, and is evaluated within a particular interpretative framework. Moreover, text messages tend to be transmitted via mobile phones, rather than computers or tablets. Seeing text-messaging as a genre—shaped by form and content—allows us to see how the genre is remediated on Twitter, for example, or in Whatsapp interactions (mobile instant messaging), and also how texting itself is a remediation of older genres such as telegrams and note writing.
The mention of Africa in the title seems straightforward at first glance, but is troubling upon closer reflection. Africa, a continent that is larger than the United States, Europe, and China taken together, recognizes more than 50 sovereign states and is home to about 15% of the world’s population, who are estimated to speak around one-third of the world’s enumerated languages (which in turn belong to five different language families). Africa is also a continent that has repeatedly been “invented” by colonial—and postcolonial—discourses, and as such, Africa is also an ideological concept; a discourse about identity, sameness, and difference, rather than simply a physical place (Mazrui, 2005; Mudimbe, 1988). Seeing Africa as more than a physical place raises a number of questions. Is texting in Africa unique, different from texting in Europe, the Americas, or Asia? Does the geo-political position of texters shape their engagement with the technology? And since this encyclopedia contains an article on Text-messaging in Africa should it not also include entries on Text-messaging in Europe/North America/South America/Asia/Antarctica/Australia (to list the other six continents)? The title also raises the question of the Diaspora. Should we be looking at texting “in Africa,” or texting “by Africans,” or only at texting “by Africans in Africa”? Writing about texting and Africa, requires both writer and reader to construct and to deconstruct Africa, to see continental communalities as well as local differences, and to recognize the fact that Africa “although particular and sometimes local, cannot be conceptualized outside of a world that is, so to speak, globalized,” and that has been so since the 15th century (Mbembe, 2015, p. 6). Then there is a silence in the title. Text-messaging in Africa … when? In the 1990s? In the early 2000s? Now? Now and in the future? The absence of temporal reference also requires reflection. First, since digital media are changing very quickly, how can I make sure that what I write now (in August 2016) is not outdated by the time the text is read (see also Deumert, 2014a); second, the lack of historicity risks a reading in which Africa is projected as being “out of time,” primordial and unchanging. Yet, the pace of change, technological and otherwise, has always been rapid in Africa, and continues to be so.
In writing this article, I draw strongly on the context I know best, South Africa, and rely otherwise on secondary literature and sources.1 The discussion unfolds as follows: section 2, “The Political Economy of Digital Communication in Africa: Diversity of Access,” looks at the political economy of digital communication on the continent, focusing, especially, on questions of access; section 3, “Texting as a Genre of Creative Sociability: Ideologies and Practices,” discusses texting as a genre that is shaped by ideologies as well as practices; section 4, “A New Formation: Pan-African Twitter,” moves from texting as a person-to-person genre to the remediation of texting on Twitter, an emergent (pan-African) public sphere; and section 5, “The All Important Problem Of Writing in African Languages,” looks at language choice and use, drawing on Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s (1986) reflections about writing in African languages.
A note on terminology: in addition to Africa and Euro-America (as geo-political concepts), I also use Global North and Global South in a historical-regional sense to refer to post-industrial, affluent, and economically dominant countries on the one hand, and postcolonial and marginalized countries on the other hand (Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania; what used to be called the Third World or the Developing World). Please note that Global South, a geopolitical concept and thus a proper noun, is somewhat different from “the south”; as articulated, for example, in the idea of southern theory, which is based on the premise that the south is a broad (metaphorical) space of distinctive experience and intellectual production, not merely a geopolitical space. The south in this broader sense can also be found within the Global North, just as the north can be found within the Global South (e.g., ghettos in North American cities are examples of the south in the north; expensive private schools in South Africa are examples of the north in the south; cf., Comaroff & Comaroff, 2012; Dados & Connell, 2012; Santos, 2014).
2. The Political Economy of Digital Communication in Africa: Diversity of Access
In early 2015, an image started circulating online. It was a photograph of a black-and-white poster that carried the slogan “if it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary.” The image first appeared on Tumblr, and it is unclear where, by whom, or when the image was taken. However, the sentiment resonated globally, and the phrase has since been recontextualized on a variety of social media sites. An example of such a recontextualization is given in Figure 1. It is an extract from the blog Kenyan Feminist. In this particular post, titled Inclusion, the anonymous writer reflects on the 2015 student movement in South Africa, a movement that emphasized, from its inception, the interaction of race, gender/sexuality, and class as structures of oppression.
“Is it accessible to the poor?” is an important question to be asked of technologies, which, developed and designed in the affluent economies of Euro-America, have been positioned as precisely this: radical and revolutionary. There is little doubt that digital media have led to a fundamental change in the way we communicate. Interactions with those who are not physically present have become quick, easy, and convenient, creating new spaces not only for the exchange of information but also for sociability (Castells, 1996). We no longer have to wait for letters or phone calls—both of which had to be received at specific physical places—but digital communications can reach us anywhere-anytime, provided, and this is a crucial caveat, that we have access to these technologies.
A political economy perspective draws attention to the fact that the production of digital technology involves capital and labor; that the distribution of these technologies is uneven across the world and reproduces geopolitical inequalities; and that the consumption or use of media resources is shaped by access to semiotic resources, such as, for example, literacy in specific languages or registers (Mosco, 2009; see also Parikka, 2015, on the “geopolitics of hardware”). Inequalities of access to digital media have been discussed as examples of a digital divide or, more recently, as digital social inequalities (Lupton, 2014). Broadly speaking, access to digital technology is a function of economic prosperity: wealthier countries tend to have higher levels of technology access than poorer countries; wealthier individuals within countries tend to have more access than poorer individuals. The most recent statistics of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU, 2015) allow us a bird’s-eye view of access on the African continent. 2
What we might want to call prototypical text-messaging refers to written messages sent between two interlocutors on a mobile phone. To send such messages, interlocutors need to have access to a mobile phone (either ownership or shared access), to be able to read-write (or, alternatively, know someone who can read-write and is available to assist), and to know how to use a phone keyboard and a small digital screen (i.e., texting requires quite specific literacy skills; Van Dijk, 2013). Looking at the distribution of these two indices—mobile phones and (general) literacy—across Africa (Table 1), the following observations can be made:
1. Africa is highly diverse when it comes to mobile phone access: about 40% of the countries listed in the ITU data base have coverage in excess of 90%, but there are also some countries with minimal penetration (Eritrea, South Sudan), as well as many countries in-between.
2. There exists no correlation between literacy rates and mobile phone subscriptions (correlation coefficient, 0.2), and there are a number of countries with relatively low literacy but high subscription rates (e.g., Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauretania). However, we need to be careful when working with global literacy statistics: diverse forms of vernacular literacies are not necessarily captured by these statistics (Street, 2011), literacy mediation is common (Porter et al., 2015), and digital engagement can also be voice-focused (Bidwell, 2016).
Overall, mobile phone access has increased dramatically across the continent during the past decade, increasing from just over 10% in 2005 to over 70% in 2015. To return to the slogan above, mobile phones are a technology that can be called radical and revolutionary: after a slow start back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when mobile phones were objects of luxury, they became broadly accessible post-2000 and now provide many people across the world with their first access ever to telecommunications (considering, especially, the fact that access to fixed-line telephony is extremely low in Africa and stood at only 1.2 percent in 2015). Mobile phone users living in remote villages or economically precarious contexts found ways to deal with unreliable or limited electricity supply (by establishing, for example, communal charging stations), and they save costly airtime or minutes by making creative use of free-services such as buzzing or please-call-me messages (see Deumert, 2014a; Donner, 2007, pp. 48–52).
A statistical outlier in terms of access is Eritrea. While the large and growing Eritrean Diaspora has an active and vocal online presence (Bernal, 2005), Eritreans in Eritrea have almost no access to digital media in any form. The ITU data records only 6% mobile phone subscriptions in Eritrea and 1% internet users (as percentage of total population).3 Eritrea, whose independence from Ethiopia was greeted with much hope in the early 1990s, has become one of Africa’s most oppressive states: political freedoms, including media freedom, are severely curtailed, and the country is ruled by an authoritarian and absolutist elite (Tronvoll & Mekonnen, 2014). However, democratic rule alone does not guarantee high levels of digital access. For example, Malawi, which has a democratic, multi-party government, remains among the countries with well below average access. The predictors of technology access are thus not political: technology infrastructure and national income appear to be the main determinants (Skaletsky, Galliers, Haughton, & Soremekun, 2016).
Table 1. Adult Literacy Rates and Mobile Phone Subscriptions for African countries.
Adult literacy rates
Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mali
Congo (Democratic Republic of), Gambia, Guinea Bisseau, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Zambia
Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo (Republic of), Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Namibia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunesia, Uganda, Zimbabwe
Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius, South Africa, Seychelles
Mobile phone subscriptions
Eritrea (6.4%), South Sudan (24.5%)
Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi
Angola, Congo (Democratic Republic of), Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bisseau, Rwanda, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia
Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe
Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Cape Verde, Congo (Republic of), Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Tunisia
Note: No data available for Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Guinea, Libya, Niger, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Swaziland (ITU, 2015).
When considering the diffusion of mobile phones, it is important to keep in mind that the broad category of mobile phones includes a variety of devices: ranging from very basic models (which only allow SMS and voice calls) to internet-enabled feature phones and, finally, smart phones (which allow full access to a wide range of internet platforms and applications). A recent survey published by Pew Global (2015) suggests that smartphone ownership remains, at this point in time, limited on the continent: the median for the seven countries studied is 15%, with the highest percentage (34%) in South Africa, and the lowest percentage (5%) in Uganda (compared to 64% in the United States).4 Thus, while basic mobile phones—enabling text and voice communication—are indeed broadly accessible, the same cannot, yet, be said for phones or other devices that allow internet access.5 Current estimates indicate that about 20% of Africans in Africa are able to access the internet (often from their mobile phones), compared to over 80% of residents in Euro-America (ITU, 2015). Again, we see important intra-continental differences (Table 2), with only a small group of countries showing internet access above the continental average.
Table 2. Individuals Using the Internet in Africa.
Individuals using the internet
Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, DRC, Congo (Republic of), Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea Bisseau, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania, Togo
Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Lesotho, Mauritania, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
Cape Verde, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunesia
Note: No data available for Burundi, Central African Republic, Comoros, Guinea, Libya, Niger, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Swaziland (ITU, 2015).
Apart from having access—via a phone, an internet café, or a personal computer—costs and the speed of connectivity also affect internet usage. Highly visual environments such as Facebook, and increasingly also Twitter, require substantial data downloads. These can be costly for pre-paid users in Africa, where flat-rate access is not usually available and most users pay per gigabyte (De Lanerolle, 2015).6 In addition, connection speeds remain slow: South Africa, one of the most developed economies on the continent, nevertheless has a below-global average connection speed of 4.1 Mbps (megabits per second), compared to 19.1 Mbps for Sweden or 14.2 Mbps for the United States (Akamai, 2016; the global average for 2015 was 5.6 Mbps). Other African countries have speeds that are well below this. And finally, there is within-country variability. Variables that have been found to impact on access and use are: gender (men tend to have more digital access), age (those who make use of digital media tend to be younger on average), location (urban residents have higher levels of connectivity), education (higher educational achievement correlates with greater access and use), disability (those with disabilities tend to have less access), as well as socioeconomic class and financial resources (providing the very material basis for being able to purchase technology; for an overview see Aker & Mbiti, 2010; Penard, Poussing, Mukoko, & Piaptie, 2015).
In sum, digital engagement in Africa happens for many in a context of scarcity: cheap, low-end phones are common, and limited financial means are available to pay for calls and text messages. In addition, access to basic infrastructure, such as electricity, might be difficult. Others—affluent and usually urban—might own smart phones and other digital devices, regularly accessing the internet in ways that are not unlike those common in the Global North. In between these two groups are many with variable forms of access: they might own internet-enabled feature phones, be able to afford larger amounts of airtime, go online in internet cafés, and so forth. This means that each study needs to be carefully attuned to the local conditions: who has access, how much access, what kind of access, and how does the materiality of access enable certain types of practices (and make other practices difficult or impossible)?
3. Texting as a Genre of Creative Sociability: Ideologies and Practices
Person-to-person text-messaging includes SMSes, which can be sent on basic phones, as well as diverse forms of (mobile) instant messaging, which require internet-enabled feature phones or smart phones. Examples of the latter include: the South African messaging application MXit, BBM, Whatsapp, and WeChat. Messages are typically typed, but some phones also allow for multimedia messages. The focus of the discussion in this section will be on personal and private messages, however, text messages can also be public (one-to-many). The latter is the case when advertisements or any other kinds of information are sent to multiple recipients; it also includes audience messages that are displayed (projected onto a screen or read out) in interactive television. In academic and popular discourses about text-messaging in Africa, certain applications tend to be foregrounded, and mobile phones are frequently seen as a tool for educational interventions and socioeconomic development (Aker & Mbiti, 2010). They provide new ways in which people can access information (such as health information or government programs) and cut down on the costs of doing business (by being able to phone or text rather than travel).
I approach text-messaging in intimate and private interactions as a genre: it is used to communicate particular contents (feelings of affect and care, attention and interest) and favors certain linguistic forms and ways of writing (on genre analysis in the study of digital communication, see also Heyd, 2015; on genre more broadly, see Devitt, 1993). Text messages tend to be relatively short; a convention they share with informally written notes (but also more formally composed telegrams). Brevity of expression is supported by the technological affordances of texting applications: SMSes are billed at 160 characters, and more characters cost more money. Moreover, keeping messages short makes it possible to reply quickly and thus to create an experience of co-presence, both via SMS and on (mobile) instant messaging platforms.
Text messages display conventionalized as well creative forms of non-standard writing (Deumert, 2014a; Deumert & Lexander, 2013; Thurlow & Poff, 2013). These conventionalized forms, although used in particular local interactions, draw on global strategies, including various types of abbreviations (clippings, consonant writing, number/letter homophones), creative spellings, and accent stylizations. These conventions imbue the text with a recognizably playful or ludic quality, even when the content that is communicated is informational or serious (on language play in digital communication more generally, see Danet, 2001; Deumert, 2014a,b). This sense of play and creative license distinguishes text-messaging from normative school literacies and positions texting firmly within the realm of leisure literacies. Consider the following message, example (1), from Côte d’Ivoire, sent by Ange, 16-years old, to his classmate. The message, written in French, includes a borrowing from English (call), a non-conventional spelling (kelke), a number homophone (1stan), and a shortening (ds).
Texting as a semiotic practice is rendered meaningful by ideological frameworks. These frameworks are indexical in nature. That is, being knowledgeable about texting—different styles and ways of writing—can index the writer as being young, modern, and/or creative (McIntosh, 2010). The genre expectations for text-messages become visible when we elicit ideologies about skillfulness; that is, when we ask participants: “what, in your opinion, are the characteristics of a ‘good texter’?” In 2010 and 2011, when our research team asked this question of young isiXhosa and isiZulu speakers (ages between 14 and 20 years) in South Africa (Cape Town and Mthatha), they readily agreed on certain characteristics: good texters respond quickly, they play with words but are also familiar with conventionalized non-standard forms (cf. Deumert & Lexander, 2013).7 Mbongeni, 19-years old and isiZulu speaking, comments on the question of whether one can “see” if someone is new to texting as follows:
uyambona, ma usebenzisa ama-abbreviations angaundastandi, na ma-typa slow, responda after iskhathi namagama akhe made
‘you can see, when you use abbreviations and they don’t understand, when they type slowly, taking long to respond and the words are long’ (interview data, Cape Town, 2010)
These sentiments were echoed by others: sending brief (rather than long and wordy) messages and knowing conventionalized abbreviations was consistently seen as a sign of skill, as was the ability to be playful and to invent new forms. Mbongeni volunteered a form he said he had invented for isiZulu, using consonant writing: kpi, for ukuphi (‘where are you’). Global abbreviations such as lol, ‘laughing out loud’, or rofl, ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ have also been resemiotized in African languages. There is, for example, lwkmb, an abbreviation of the (Nigerian) Pidgin expression laff wan kill my belle, ‘I am full of laughter in my stomach’; in isiXhosa, there is gpy, giligidi phantsi yintsini (‘falling down laughing’); and Afrikaans texters have created a wide range of transgressive laughter acronyms (discussed in Deumert, 2014a, pp. 154–155).
There are also expectations regarding content: a good texter likes to chat, is sociable, and shows consideration for the interlocutor. Lindiwe, a young isiXhosa-speaking woman from Mthatha, summarizes this as follows: a good texter is umntu othanda ukuncokola othetha kamnandi, ‘a person who likes to chat and talks nicely [i.e., does not offend you or is rude]’. Across the interview data, texting is projected as sociability, and the ability to engage in small talk, or chatting, with others even when one is not—or cannot be—co-present seems to be especially attractive about digital engagement (also Thurlow & Poff, 2013). The absent presences that are facilitated by texting also help people to deal with the consequences of mobility: high levels of rural-urban migration as well as international migration form the backdrop to digital communication in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South (Archambault, 2012; De Bruijn, Nyamnjoh, & Brinkman, 2009).
Notions of skill and skillfulness are also evident in Charlyn Dyers’ (2014) discussion of texting practices by a group of older Afrikaans-speaking women in Cape Town. They learned texting from their children and grandchildren—who thus appear as literacy mediators—and as part of this process, they not only learned to use the technology, but they also acquired a sense of what constitutes a “good” text message (see also Velghe, 2014). Dyers includes the following field observations in her discussion:
The women sat in pairs with their heads close together, bent over their phones, while showing off their skills. Comments made during these sessions would typically include: ‘Kyk hoe’t ek now geskrywe.’ (Look at how I have just written.); ‘Ek het mooier as jy geschrywe.’ (I wrote nicer than you.); ‘Nee jy skrywe verkeert!’ (No, you are writing incorrectly!).
(Dyers, 2014, p. 9)
While we can identify important communalities, there exist—at the same time—a diversity of practices. Thus, Innocent Chiluwa (2008), looking at a sample of text messages from Nigeria, found that the writers of these messages avoided features that indexed Nigerianess and preferred to use globalized conventions instead. While this is true for his sample, other samples (such as the ones discussed in Deumert & Lexander, 2013, or Taiwo, 2010) show different patterns. Some writers, for example, index their Nigerianess through the use of Nigerian Pidgin (Naijá) and other local languages. Consider the message in (2), which was sent, in 2011, by a male writer in his early 30s. The message includes the Pidgin expression I for like, meaning ‘I would like’, as well as the Yòrúba emphasis marker abi. Message (3) similarly combines highly localized spelling conventions with a local joke about Boko Haram, a violent insurgent group in Nigeria. The message was written by a man in his early 20s, and sent to a woman of roughly the same age.
Not only non-standard orthographies constitute a “powerful expressive resource” (Jaffe, 2000, p. 498), projecting the writer as a particular persona, the same can be said about standard orthographies. Thus, while some writers make extensive use of non-standard spelling (at frequencies that appear to be higher than what has been reported for the United States and Europe, cf. Deumert & Lexander, 2013), others value the norms of the standard. In the South African data, for example, some—often university-educated and older—writers emphasize the fact that they follow standard norms: ndibhala nje kakuhle mna, ‘me, I write properly’ (South African university woman student, late 20s). For some multilingual writers, writing properly depends on the language they write in: while English (and French, Portuguese, Arabic, and Afrikaans) can be modified and played with (see also Section 5), many African languages—unless they are languages of wider communication, such as Kiswahili—appear mainly in their full form (see also Barasa, 2010; Deumert & Lexander, 2013; Lexander, 2011; McIntosh, 2010). However, things are in flux: while the idea of abbreviating isiXhosa was greeted with incredulity in 2007 (Deumert & Masinyana, 2008), abbreviations have become more common with time (Dyers & Davids, 2015).
4. A New Formation: Pan-African Twitter
In Africa, person-to-person text-messaging goes back to the early 2000s, when the number of mobile phones started to grow. With the slow but steady growth of internet-enabled feature phones, as well as smartphones, other applications are also becoming accessible. This includes Twitter, a social media application that shows important genre affinities with text messages; such as, brevity (140 characters for Twitter), the license to write in non-conventional ways, a generally playful and ludic approach to communication, and engagement via mobile phones (rather than computers or tablets).8 At the same time, Twitter has its own distinctive features. Most importantly, it is a public (one-to-many) application. To structure interactions on Twitter, writers can use @ if they wish to address specific individuals, and hashtags (#) provide a bottom-up (that is, folksonomic) indexing system. Tweets on the same topic are grouped together under hashtags—such as #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou—and can thus be located easily. The hashtag creates a particular interpretative frame and aligns individual Tweets clearly to larger debates and conversations.
With the exception of North Africa, where Twitter has played a celebrated, as well as contested role in democratic uprisings, there is only limited research available about Twitter in Africa (on Twitter during the Arab Spring, see, for example, Bruns, Highfield, & Burgess, 2013; Kharroub & Bas, 2016). Portland’s How Africa Tweets (2014) publications, although commercially orientated, provide a useful overview of salient aspects of Twitter in Africa. Thus, in terms of geographical distribution, the most active writers are found in Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Ghana. Other, considerably smaller, centers are found in Algeria, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.9 Moreover, Portland analyzed the content of Tweets and found that, unlike in the United Kingdom and the United States, politics are core to Twitter engagement in Africa. Twitter conversations create a sense of political-social community and belonging, not only within countries, but also across borders, within Africa and beyond (Portland, 2014, 2016).
That Twitter can provide a public platform for establishing Pan-African relations and community became visible in mid-2015, when a writer from Botswana, Siyanda Mohutsiwa, posted the following Tweet: “If Africa was a bar, what would your country be drinking/doing?” The Tweet, hash-tagged #IfAfricaWasABar, started an inter-continental, Pan-African conversation, allowing writers to poke fun at stereotypes (‘#IfAfricaWasABar, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco be like "What the hell are we doing here?!!’), to critique old and new forms of colonialism (‘#IfAfricaWasABar, Europeans would spike all the drinks then sell antidotes to everyone at a later date’; ‘#IfAfricaWasABar, the menu would be available in Chinese’), to reflect on continental hierarchies and invisibilities (‘#IfAfricaWasABar, South Africa orders bottles of Moët for the club & demands that others be grateful’; ‘#IfAfricaWasABar, Lesotho would be that person who nobody really knows but is always in the pictures’), and to comment on political tensions (#IfAfricaWasABar, Somaliland is that girl who tells guys she’s single & Somalia is that guy who insists they’re “working things out”). To understand the conversation, and to participate in it, one had to know about the continent’s political and social structures; the humor was pan-African rather than local or global.
In her subsequent TED talk (“How Young Africans Found a Voice on Twitter,” February 2016), Mohutsiwa describes her personal history with Twitter, the new continental networks it enabled, how it gave voice to Africans, as well as the ways in which Twitter, at this point in time (2015/2016), remains a fairly elite and English-dominant space:
The year was 2011, and all over southern Africa and the whole continent, affordable data packages for smartphones and Internet surfing became much easier to get. So my generation, we were sending messages to each other on this platform that just needed 140 characters and a little bit of creativity … But of course, this luxury was not available to everybody. So this meant that if you were a teenage girl in Botswana and you wanted to have fun on the Internet, one, you had to tweet in English. Two, you had to follow more than just the three other people you knew online. You had to follow South Africans, Zimbabweans, Ghanaians, Nigerians. And suddenly, your whole world opened up…, the first time ever young Africans could discuss the future of our continent in real time, without the restriction of borders, finances, and watchful governments…. Access to these online networks has given young Africans something we've always had to violently take: a voice…. For the first time ever, African pain and African aspiration has the ability to be witnessed by those who can empathize with it the most: other Africans.
(Mohutsiwa , 2016)
Mohutsiwa’s comments suggest that pan-African Twitter is, to some degree, born out of scarcity: since there are relatively few people on the continent who have access to Twitter, deeply local conversations are difficult in many countries, and one needs to engage with people elsewhere in Africa. In this context of scarcity, Twitter created a space where multi-vocal counter-narratives could be articulated dialogically by those who have access to the technology; a virtual space where continental as well as global linkages could be established between Africa and the Diaspora. These global linkages are relevant for understanding what has been called Black Twitter.10 Black Twitter, also referred to as the “Afrosphere” or “Blackosphere,” forms an informal, fairly close-knit, horizontally organized, and internally diverse, social media network, which provides a unique take on political activism, formulating counter-narratives to mainstream media representations, and mobilizing for socio-political change. Dissent and debate are expressed creatively in—often ironic, sarcastic, or humorous—hashtags, Tweets, and re-tweets, shining a harsh light on the experience and persistence of racism and racist violence, symbolic and physical, in society (Boutros, 2015). Black Twitter was initially associated with the United States, but the term is increasingly also used in South Africa (starting around 2011), and indeed, it has been argued that Black Twitter has brought together Black voices from across the world, creating “a global home for the black agenda” (Sosibo, 2015; also Workneh, 2016). In addition to Black Twitter, there is also African Twitter. Like Black Twitter, it is an emic, folksonomic designation. Many users see it as a space that is distinct from Black Twitter, see examples (4)–(6). African Twitter is not African in the sense of including only Tweets that are geo-tagged as being “in Africa,” but, like Black Twitter, includes the Diaspora (7). The comment in example (4) on ‘jollof rice debates’ refers to a re-occurring topic on African Twitter: discussions as to which national version of jollof rice, a one-pot West African dish, is the best and most original one. These debates are a playful, ludic, tongue-in-cheek celebration of African cultural traditions, similar in style and tone to the #IfAfricaWasABar conversation.
The sense of community people experience on Twitter is evident in the way virtual spaces such as Black Twitter or African Twitter are spoken about: they are places of abode, a kind of communicative home that one inhabits. Twitter is not experienced simply as a public sphere, a marketplace of ideas, but also as relational and interpersonal, creating a space where Africans can talk to other Africans about Africa and the world, where pan-African ideas and aspirations can be formulated by anyone who has access to the technology. At the same time, more local issues and politics are discussed as well. Thus, we find regular references to regional formations such as East African Twitter, and national spaces such as Ghanian Twitter. The fact that Twitter is simultaneously local and translocal has consequences for languages choices on Twitter. As Mohutiswa commented in her TED talk: “you wanted to have fun on the Internet … you had to tweet in English.” Her personal experience is supported by Portland’s research (2016): over 70% of Tweets posted in Africa are in English, 7% in Arabic, 4% in French—the remaining 10% cover all the other languages of Africa. English thus reigns supreme on African Twitter, even in the Francophonie and North Africa: of the top-10 Senegalese hashtags in 2015, only four led to a French conversation; of the top-10 Egyptian hashtags, six were debated predominately in Arabic, four in English.
5. “The All Important Problem Of Writing in African Languages”
In Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1986) discusses “the all important problem of writing in African languages.” While many African writers have chosen to write in the former colonial languages, Ngũgĩ refuses to accept “the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position” of these languages, and argues for the use of African languages in novels, poetry, and dramatic writing. He identifies the petty bourgeoisie or middle class as the crux of the problem: while the peasantry and workers continued to live their lives mainly through African languages, the middle classes were found to value proficiency in the colonial languages highly. Moreover, in speaking the former colonial languages, they usually oriented towards metropolitan models, showing reverence to the metropolitan standard. For Ngũgĩ, creating literature in African languages is not merely a question of art and expression, but also of politics: “I believe that my writing in Gikuyu, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggle of Kenyan and African people” (Ngũgĩ, 1986, p. 28).
Ngũgĩ’s position is one side of the debate. Others have argued that the appropriation of the former colonial languages can be seen as acts of resistance, not compliance, since these languages will be re-shaped and re-constituted in the process, becoming vehicles for African thought and art. This position has been put forward, for example, by Chinua Achebe (1965). Black Consciousness activists in South Africa have also argued for the Africanization of English and emphasized the importance of English as a medium for political activism (e.g., Biko, 1987). Similar voices can be heard today. For example, Andile Mngxitama’s (in Mngxitama & Kaganof, 2013, p. 92) response to a call to support African languages turns Ngũgĩ’s argument upside down; for him it is the privileged position of the middle classes that allows them to support African languages:
I think the so-called indigenous languages project is a pre-occupation of middle-class motherfuckers …. We blacks are in a shit plantation and as a matter of fact this language bull only breeds little tribal chauvinisms which divide us further.
While English is prominent on African Twitter as a one-to-many medium (see Section 4), the situation is slightly different for person-to-person communication. Here it is not necessarily English that is dominant, but the former colonial language, which also tends to be the language of post-primary schooling (for text messages, see Barasa, 2010; Chiluwa, 2008; Deumert & Masinyana, 2008; Ekanjume, 2009; Lexander, 2011). However, African languages are used as well, either in mixed utterances (as in example , in French and Wolof), or in monolingual utterances (example , Wolof only, written in the official Wolof orthography; both examples are text messages from Senegal, Lexander, 2011).
Similar patterns can be seen on Twitter. Consider, for example, Unathi Kondile who decided, in 2011, in a move reminiscent of Ngũgĩ, to tweet henceforth only in isiXhosa (see Deumert & Mabandla, forthcoming, for a more detailed discussion). Others create various forms of multilingual writing similar to example (10); on multilingual writing more generally, see Sebba, 2012). The practice of language mixing or multilingual writing mediates between the positions put forward by Achebe and Ngũgĩ: not the former colonial language OR African languages, but English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese, AND African languages.
Not only Tweets are multilingual, but so are hashtags. The Tweet in (11) was posted in October 2015 during the South African student protests. It mixes English and Nguni (i.e., linguistic forms that are common to both isiXhosa and isiZulu), and contains two hashtags: #Asijki, ‘we will not turn back’, and #TuksFeesMustFall, a localized version of the hashtag #FeesMustFall (Tuks is the University of Pretoria; see also Nassenstein & Hollington, 2015, for hashtags written in Yarada K’wank’wa, a variety spoken by young people in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia).
While the language ideologies that inform person-to-person texting are best elicited through interviews and conversations and are rarely discussed in messages themselves, overt metalinguistic commentary is common on Twitter. Language use and choice on Twitter is a topic of discussion, debate, and reflection. Thus, when Bonang Matheba, a South African television host, started using more Setswana in her Tweets, especially deeply traditional forms and proverbs, others commented, appreciatively (12) as well as critically (13). Vernac, used in example (13), is a South African term referring to African languages in general.
Overall, it is difficult to generalize and practices can change quickly (as noted in Section 3, with regard to abbreviated forms of African languages). However, one constant in digital writing, has been the presence of a heavily modified form of English. In South Africa, this way of writing has been known by different names at different times: SMS language, text language, MXit language (named after a local mobile instant messaging application), Twitter language, and more recently bbz language. Bbz is, according to the Urban Dictionary (urbandictionary.com), an abbreviation for ‘babes’ or ‘bitchy babes’, and is used as an affectionate form of address. Bbz language is a way of writing closely associated with Twitter (14). However, linkages to older technological forms are acknowledged (15), and—as with personal text messages—not everyone considers this type of writing attractive.
Some writers have positioned this way of writing not only as enjoyable and characteristic of the genre, but also as decolonial. Writing in bbz language is seen as a decolonial move, a form of resistance that dismantles the hegemonic power of English (16; see also Bongela, 2016).
Metapragmatically, writing in bbz language is framed as disruption (of English) and interacts closely with practices of Africanization. Consider example (17). @_B posted a Tweet written in bbz language: ‘merry exams bbz. You [are] the love of my life’. @_N responds in isiXhosa, thus creating a collaborative multilingual (re-)tweet. The short isiXhosa text is difficult to translate, possibly reflecting in-group ways of speaking. A non-literal, broad translation would be: ‘this way of being has gotten hold of you’.
Returning to the debate between Achebe and Ngũgĩ, a remarkable aspect of text-messaging—whether in one-to-one or one-to-many contexts—is how these old debates not only resurface, but also give rise to solutions that are more diverse, more flexible; that is, solutions where hybrid, non-standard ways of writing (multilingual texts as well as texts that Africanize and modify the former colonial language) stand next to monolingual texts that reproduce not only the colonial standard but also represent African languages in their traditional form. Francis Nyamnjoh and Katleho Shoro (2011, p. 37) asked in their discussion on language and pan-Africanism: “What does it mean to write in a Pan-African manner?” And they continue a few pages later: “The point here is that, because of the different experiences with African and colonial languages and, in fact, the varying experiences involved in being African, no Pan-African blueprint can be provided.” (p. 48; see also Mafeje, 1997). The absence of a blueprint is clearly visible in the data discussed here. Although we can identify broad patterns, there exists a diversity of practices and digital writing is best described as heteroglossic (see Deumert, 2014a).
6. Concluding Comments: Texting Africa
This article started by critically considering the concept of Africa: what does it mean to study a social phenomenon in Africa? What can we say about text-messaging in Africa? There are a number of core points that emerge from the discussion.
First, despite the much reported “mobile (phone) revolution” in Africa (e.g., Jidenma, 2014), access to digital media remains unevenly distributed across the continent. In some cases, such as Eritrea, digital visibility is almost entirely in the hands of the Diaspora. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between basic digital access (sending text messages via SMS and making voice calls), intermediate access (some access to instant messaging and the internet via feature phones), and full access (via smartphones and computers). In addition, costs and questions of connectivity shape digital engagement, and it is thus vital to reflect carefully on the local context, and the economic position of writers.
Second, text-messaging on mobile phones is best understood as a genre: not only is it defined by a particular mode of communication (written, visual, digital), but it also favors particular topics (intimate, relational, sociable, ludic) and ways of writing (non-standard, creative, as well as multilingual). The latter are subject to meta-pragmatic reflection, and most writers have clear ideas of what constitutes a “good texter.” Being able to be creative with words, knowledgeable of popular conventions, and sociable in one’s interactions with others are important: texting is meant to be enjoyable, not merely for the exchange of information. These interactive features of texting are also evident in the remediation of the genre on Twitter. The popular hashtag #IfAfricaWasABar, for example, illustrates not only the ludic quality of Twitter, it also shows how it simultaneously has the potential to become a pan-African space where Africans talk to other Africans—both in Africa and in the Diaspora—about Africa and about being African.
Third, although former colonial languages, especially English, dominate text-messaging, it also provides important opportunities for writing in African languages. The choices made in the digital space echo the well-known debate between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: the Africanization and disruption of the former colonial languages versus the writing in African languages. In addition, digital writers engage in multilingual writing, combining diverse languages in one text, and thus offer new ways of writing locally as well as shaping a digitally mediated pan-African voice.
There is much scope for further work on digital writing in Africa: not only texting, but also social media applications such as Facebook and YouTube are becoming increasingly popular as digital access broadens across the continent. Of particular interest is the interaction between the Diaspora and “Africans in Africa,” the kinds of communications that have become possible, and the ways in which locality, being-in-a-physical-place, still matters to digital engagement. The reflexively articulated differences between African Twitter and Black Twitter, for example, would provide ample opportunity to explore the ways in which (local) Africaness, (global) Blackness, and pan-Africanism are scripted and inscribed.
I would like to thank Stéphane Pepe for help with the collection of text messages in Côte d’Ivoire and Tolu Odebunmi for assistance with the Nigerian text messages.
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(1.) On text-messaging and mobile phones “in Africa” see, for example, De Bruijn et al. (2009) for various case studies; Donner (2007) for Rwanda; Lexander (2011) for Senegal; McIntosh (2010) and Barasa (2010) for Kenya;; Ekanjume (2009) for Lesotho; Chiluwa (2008) and Taiwo (2010) for Nigeria; Archambault (2013) for Mozambique; Lamoureaux (2011) for Sudan; Nkomo and Khumalo (2012) for Zimbabwe; Nassenstein and Hollington (2015) for the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. With regard to South Africa, there is my own work as well as Bock (2013); Dyers (2014); Dyers and Davids (2015); and Velghe (2014). In addition, there is an ever growing literature that looks at digital communication more broadly, including blogs, discussion lists, and community fora, YouTube, and Facebook.
(2.) With regard to mobile phones, ITU statistics are based on subscription rates, not on users and handsets. Thus, one user might own more than one SIM card; in addition some SIM cards may be inactive.
(3.) I consider internet to be a generic noun, rather than a proper noun, and therefore do not capitalize it. For a discussion of the debate see: http://www.wired.com/2015/10/should-you-be-capitalizing-the-word-internet/.
(4.) The countries covered by the survey were South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda.
(7.) The data was collected as part of the project Multilingual Digital Literacies, funded by the South African Netherlands Project for Development (the project was led by Ana Deumert and involved colleagues at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape, South Africa).
(8.) Data from MacMillan, G. (2014, February). 80% of UK users access Twitter via their mobile. TwitterUK. In the past, Facebook imposed a word limit on status updates, thus creating a social media genre akin to text messages (“status updates”). The initial limit was 160 characters, this was increased to just over 400 in 2009, and to over 60,000 characters in 2011. The character increase has moved Facebook updates into the direction of blogging, allowing for longer texts and discussions.
(9.) The presence of small centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Tanzania is noteworthy given the generally low levels of internet access in these countries (Table 2). It suggests that there are small but highly active groups of Twitter users in these locales.
(10.) I capitalize both Black and White. Capitalizing Black is a form of cultural recognition, reflecting the emergence of a common socio-cultural identity in response to imposed racialization. I capitalize White for a different reason: it reflects a system of dominance that has been normalized in society, and its capitalization is meant to de-normalize this system by making it visible (see Tharps, 2014).