Last month, our own Ory Okolloh, who is Google’s policy manager for Africa, was speaking at The Guardian Activate summit on technology in London.
Ory has now fully developed an idea that I first heard her raise during the big Pan-Africa Media Conference organised by Nation Media Group in Nairobi last year to mark its 50th anniversary.
She said there was something wrong when the world spoke about new technology in Africa. The discussion is almost always focused on technology in development.
The presumption, Ory argued, was that Africans were different from other human beings and couldn’t do anything for fun.
They are always put in a “ghetto” where the rules that apply are not those that govern other societies (VIDEO: 'Africans enjoy technology').
Africans too, she said, use technology just to have a good time — to play Internet games, to check out pornography on the Internet, and so on. It’s from this enjoyment of technology that great things flow.
She has a point. The social media website, Facebook, which now has 750 million users, was founded by Mark Zuckerberg in his Harvard University dorm with the aim of putting up photographs of the girls on campus next to each other so the guys could choose which one was “hotter”.
At that point in 2003, Zuckerberg probably did not know where Egypt was, or that the site would play a role in the ouster of the country’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak, eight years later.
The situation is even worse when it comes to media. Virtually every week, there is a seminar or conference on “media and development”; “the role of media in promoting health”; and the “role of media in fostering national unity”.
The result is that journalism tends to attract grim-faced fundamentalists and activists on the environment, poverty, health, education who write gloomy tales that are impossible to read, so they get wasted.
Then along comes an economist like Steven Levitt who is having a jolly good time with the subject, and writes the exciting Freakonomics. It becomes a pop book and bestseller.
We saw the same in the first decades of African film. Yes, they dealt with important subjects like colonialism, but they were impossible to watch for recreation on a weekend.
That was until our brothers in Nigeria came along and said; “To hell, let us do films about voodoo and about husbands running away with the house-help”.
Lo and behold, we had Nollywood, the world’s largest film industry in terms of output.
It’s probably in music that the embrace of the hedonistic has paid off most. In the “good old days” in this region, musicians like DRC’s Franco (Luambo Luanzo Makiadi) ruled the roost.
They were so important that when they came to a country, they had to meet the president. There were many wet faces at their shows.
They sang about love, betrayal, Aids. Their music was supposed to heal broken hearts, and mellow the hearts of one-party dictators. They created cults, not global mass movements.
Recently, I was watching a Top 40 of African hip hop or something on DSTv. My daughters invest a lot of time in ensuring that I don’t embarrass them by sounding like a Stone Age father.
So, every day, I get an education on the big musicians, the hit songs, and so on. On this occasion, I had been cornered to watch easily the biggest musician sensation in Africa today, a spindly Angolan chap called Cabo Snoop.
The fellow has got a song called Windeck that throbs with energy and is infectious. It is, as most reviews have noted, a “meaningless” song where ‘Windeck’ is repeated over and over again.
However, the song has many young people in other parts of the world wiggling away. Its only point is that it is great fun.
The Kenyan music group, P-Unit, was being interviewed about African music. What struck me was just how informed P-Unit were about what is happening on the music scene in every corner of Africa.
P-Unit, I am sure, don’t sit up reading books and news magazines on Africa. They soak in the knowledge as they enjoy African music.
Which suggests that the greatest hindrance to Africa achieving global greatness is just that; boring teachers, boring politicians, boring chief executive officers, boring everything.