Knowledge is power and knowledge can be acquired when one has access to information hence information is power. The right to information or the right to know has developed into one of the most fundamental human rights. A great example is the work that activists in South Africa are doing in lobbying their government to ensure that the right to know as part and parcel of their constitutionally entrenched rights is realised. Indeed one of the most famous Shona adages is Kusaziva rufu – Ignorance is death. Even then our ancestors knew that an informed populace is an empowered one and without knowledge and information a nation can not succeed. It will be as good as dead in its communal and its citizens’ personal development.
So it is important for communities to have access to information and a platform to share the information they have for their own empowerment. That is why I find it imperative to celebrate the women who came together to give a voice to those who would otherwise not have a voice. That is what the women whom I like calling the ‘girls’ because they are young at heart and do not tire in their efforts at Kubatana are doing. Indeed as their name Kubatana – Unity purpots, they unite Zimbabweans. The ‘girls’ are successfully doing what their mission statement says they exist for, namely to “harness the democratic potential of email and the internet in Zimbabwe.” They bring together Zimbabwean civil society to connect with policy makers and the grassroots in the fight for democracy.
Bev Clark, Brenda Burrell and Amanda Atwood, the ‘girls’ of Kubatana, have devised methods of getting information to and from communities. On Kubatana one is assured to find information on diverse topics from conflict prevention and peace building, violence against women, gender equality, and constitution making processes, sustainable development and climate change among others.
Kubatana came into existence in 2001 as a direct response to the need for a creation that would provide a platform for political campaigning, information dissemination, and giving knowledge on communication technologies knowledge hence making civic and human rights information easily accessible, free and available on a centralised portal.
Through their website, many people across the globe can access reliable information on Zimbabwe via the internet. Kubatana’s newsletter which is distributed via a mailing list also disseminates information on news, events and opportunities for funding, scholarships, jobs and consultancies to thousands of ordinary Zimbabweans. I have learnt of many job openings through Kubatana and I know of people who got their jobs after seeing the adverts on Kubatana.
In Zimbabwe internet is not easily accessible. Even for the townsfolk one has to pay a fortune to get good connection. For an unlimited access package in Egypt I paid a fixed amount of EGP95 (Egyptian Pounds) equivalent to US$16 per month split three ways with my two housemates. Effectively I paid US$5, 50 every month for unlimited, fast connection which I could use to download all sorts of documents, music and even movies without too much difficulty. In Zimbabwe the cheapest scheme that anyone can get is from Tel One where a fixed payment of $30 per month has to be paid. But this is contingent upon one having a functional landline. Most landlines stopped working ages ago due to the failure by the telecommunications system to maintain the phone lines. So yes internet is not easily accessible to many Zimbabweans. However the ‘girls’ of Kubatana publish many articles which they disseminate to thousands of subscribers via mobile services every week.
The SMS technology enables all those without access to the internet to receive and share vital information in a two way process that promotes dialogue. Kubatana sends out questions on social justice issues and request their subscribers to respond with their views and opinions. When the information comes back the ‘girls’ then collate the data received in the form of SMS, and publish them either in their weekly email newsletter or the community blog. This is an effective way of including the voices of the marginalised in the cycle of information.
The use of SMS technology by the ‘girls’ was of utmost importance in 2008 during the elections when SMS became a vital mode of passing on information about the events taking place in various constituencies. The ‘Frontline SMS’ service enabled Kubatana’s subscribers to receive up-to-date election information and results. Kubatana also developed a short manual giving tips to other civil society actors on the pros and cons of using mobile advocacy.
Kubatana also introduced the Freedom Fone, an innovative telephony software that they use to decode cellphone SMS with audio voice menu. This technology is intended for improving communication for information activists, service organisations and NGO’s to deliver vital information to communities which need it for campaigns. For instance emergency responses to disease outbreaks, the passing on of confidential information for stigmatised communities impacted with HIV/AIDS and giving counselling and support to victims of different forms of abuse are circumstances under which this technology can be used. Through one of their projects called Inzwa – Listen, using the Freedom Fone Kubatana enabled mobile subscribers to call in and listen to news and other information that is not censored or distorted to suit the aims of the disseminator.
Website management is also one of the most expensive feats that many civil society actors can not afford to maintain; given the many funding constraints that Zimbabwean civil society has faced since 2007. The Kubatana website gives all those NGOs that do not have their own websites a platform to publish their information and reach to a wide audience. To those organisations that already have websites, Kubatana gives them a chance to reach an even wider audience.
Given that the issue of gay rights remains one of the most sensitive issues in Zimbabwe many civil society actors are afraid to voice the issue either out of fear of being ostracised as ‘gay supporters’ or out of their own sense of morality. The ‘girls’ are among the few that have vocalised that gay rights are human rights just like all other human rights. As they so aptly express , “One’s sexuality is as integral a part of someone’s humanity as their race, gender, and religion. A Constitution that protects Zimbabweans against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is thus as essential as one that prevents discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, ethnicity, or religion.”
In 2011, Kubatana spearheaded an initiative to demand accountability from the government for the funds collected at toll gates on major roads given that the state of Zimbabwe’s roads remains a perpetual concern. They put up an activist message in one of their newsletters, asking where the money was going and asking Transparency International Zimbabwe to track the money. Kubatana mobilised and lobbied Transparency International Zimbabwe which then investigated the use of money from toll gates.
Today Kubatana is one of the most well respected websites nationally and globally for the role it plays in dishing out reliable and credible information. It has received global recognition for all the efforts that the ‘girls’ have put in. In 2005 Kubatana received an honorary mention at Prix Ars Electronica´s 2005 digital communities’ category among several hundred submissions from across the globe. The Prix Ars Electronica is a global competition that recognises creativity in the key fields of digital media. Kubatana received recognition for their roles as providers of vital information on human and social development, civic educators and motivators or morale boosters to the rest of Zimbabweans.
Kubatana has also been short-listed for the Hafkin Prize. The Prize honours individuals and organisations that pioneer the networking and development of information and communications in Africa. The Kubatana project has won the award for most innovative ICT project at Highway Africa, a gathering of African journalists in the world. Kubatana was also short-listed for the Yeoman Local Content Award.
In 2010 Kubatana won the Breaking Borders Award in the category of Advocacy from Google and Global Voices. This Award was given in recognition of their stern efforts in fighting for free expression online.
Indeed freedom of information in Zimbabwe would not have been where it is had it not been for the ‘girls’ at Kubatana. As the Women’s Trust motto goes “Women can do it” and indeed these women have done it.