For a continent with over 300 million internet users, Africa’s presence on platforms like Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects such as Wiktionary is dismal. According to the organization’s 2011 strategic plan, a majority of writers on the online collaborative platforms are male, young, and from countries in the Global North, and only 5% of the Wikipedia articles that exist about Africa are written by people with I.P addresses from the continent.
Although Wikipedia is regularly edited by over 100,000 Wikipedians, (volunteers who contribute content to Wikipedia) used in over 200 countries and available in 259 languages, it is still deficient in nuanced information about the African continent in comparison to North America and Europe. For a political science student looking for information about awoism, the political ideals of Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo, Wikipedia might prove an unproductive source. In fact, according to this Wikipedia page, there are currently more Wikipedia articles about Antarctica (7,800 out of 1.5 million articles) than there are about any one country in Africa or South America.
A quick web image search of Africa will surely produce (amongst other things) a map of the continent, animals amidst the backdrop of a proverbial setting sun and an image of a hunger stricken child. These images are what one might call Africa’s online DNA – an inherited narrative about the continent that informs how the online community and ultimately the world views and interacts with it. The problem of Africa’s single story has persisted long before Wikipedia and other online resources, but the autonomy of the internet presents Africans with an opportunity to rewrite what has been written.
Wiki Loves Africa is a public annual photo contest that encourages people across Africa to contribute media (photographs, video, and audio) about their environment on Wikimedia Commons for use on Wikipedia and other project websites of the Wikimedia Foundation. The project asks people on the African continent to submit media around a certain theme – Wiki Loves Africa’s inaugural project in 2014 focused on African cuisine while in 2015, people were asked to provide images, video, and audio about Africa’s extensive relationship with fashion and cultural adornment.
- Image by Lukas Takerkart
“We wanted a contest that would focus on Africa, with a different theme every year. A contest that would be very inclusive so that everyone could participate whatever his-her age or his-her location” Devouard tells The Jeli.
“We also wanted a contest that could be a framework for local Wikipedians for expressing their creativity, spreading the word, training new Wikipedians. So I would say that Wiki Loves Africa is not only a means to collect more illustrations but very largely an opportunity to do outreach locally.”
Last year, the contest collected 8,000 images, which are all available for use under Creative Commons licensing. According to Devouard, a reason why a majority of the images currently available online don’t depict Africa in its entirety is because the images aren’t taken by Africans themselves.
“For many African countries, a large part of the image pool is constituted of pictures taken by tourists rather than inhabitants,” notes Devouard
“The result is that one is more likely to find images about a cheetah running than of a woman politician.”
For people who are curious about female African politicians, the pool of information is even smaller given that only 12% of biographies in sub-Saharan Africa are about women. Much like the issue that spurred Wiki Loves Africa into existence, the content that exists online about women shows a clear gender bias. According to the report, It’s a Man’s Wikipedia? Assessing Gender Inequality in an Online Encyclopedia, words that are associated with the categories family, relationship and gender are more likely to be ascribed to women in Wikipedia articles. For example, an article about a notable figure is 4.4 times more likely to indicate that the person is divorced if it is about a woman. These grim statistics cannot be divorced from the fact that less than 20% of (all) Wikipedia contributors are female
Wiki Loves Women is Devouard and Haddow-Flood’s response to the problem. Like Wiki Loves Africa, Wiki Loves Women is focused on increasing written content about women in sub-Saharan Africa and encouraging women on the continent to be the ones to creating it. Just this year, Wiki Loves Women hosted a Wiki Loves Women #15Challenge Writing Contest on Wikipedia to celebrate Wikipedia’s 15th anniversary. The contest resulted in 71 English articles, 122 French articles, and 41 Armenian articles about notable African women all written by Wiki Loves Women participants.
For Devouard and her team, changing the narrative is a goal, but so is seeing marginalized online communities “grow, get stronger, more organized, more confident, and more integrated into the global community.”
(Header image by Isaac Kaigi)
Will you be part of the movement changing African narratives online? Share your thoughts in the comments below.