Thursday, July 8, 2010

Talking RapidSMS in Vélingara

Last week I traveled to Vélingara, a department in Southern Senegal, to talk to community members about their experience with the Jokko module and with the RapidSMS-based Community Forum. Once there, I met up with Malick Niang (Proj. Coordinator for Senegal), Finté Boiro (Assistant Coordinator, Kolda), Alimatou Diao and Almamy Yoro Badji (Supervisors, Kolda), and we headed out into the villages.

For those of you who are new to the Jokko Initiative, a brief recap : In April 2009, Tostan collaborated with UNICEF to launch the RapidSMS-based « Community Forum » in 15 villages in the department of Vélingara where the Jokko module was being taught.

Vélingara department, Senegal. Villages where the Jokko module was taught marked with a pink dot. 

In a nutshell, the Community Forum is a practical, SMS-based application that allows a community member to disseminate information to a virtual network of his or her peers by sending a single text message to Tostan’s server. In the villages where we piloted the Community Forum, participants in the Jokko module not only learned how to use a mobile phone and send text messages, but received training in RapidSMS technology. Our goal : to provide community members with tools to bolster their local development initiatives- especially those that involve mobilizing people around common causes to effect positive social change.  

One year later, it was high time for a field visit to talk RapidSMS with community members. We split our time between two primarily Pulaar villages, Sare Dialo and Barkatou, in which we had identified many "power users": people who frequently send messages to the Community Forum on themes related to development and social mobilization.

With this tool, the Jokko team is able to visualize all text messages sent in the Community Forum.

The feedback we received confirmed many of our initial hopes. Overwhelmingly, community members find the Community Forum to be extremely beneficial to their communities and would like to see the system expanded to other villages and regions of the country. We also found that many of those using RapidSMS were not participants in the Jokko module, and some don’t even live in the villages- news and know-how traveled fast!

Alimatou and I jump into a group shot of the women and children of Barkatou.

So what did RapidSMS users have to say? Those interviewed confirmed much of what we already knew as members of the Community Forum ourselves : community members use RapidSMS to disseminate information and to organize meetings and events on an array of themes including vaccination campaigns, bed net distribution for malaria prevention, village clean-ups and school enrollment for children.

For me, two anecdotes were particularly illustrative of the beneficial potentialities of RapidSMS technology, and of SMS technology in general.

In Sare Dialo, we spoke with two RapidSMS users, Khadiatou M’Ballo and Dieynabou Baldé, who are physically disabled. Both are also extremely active in local development issues and described how they used the Community Forum for these purposes. Of greater interest to me, however, was the story of social empowerment that emerged from their testimonial. Dieynabou learned how to read, write, and send a text message in Tostan's education program. Now she uses the Community Forum to arrange transportation to community events that shy might not otherwise be able to attend.

Khadiatou M’Ballo and Dieynabou Baldé, local activists and RapidSMS users in Sare Dialo.

A second anecdote, related to me by multiple users, is emblematic of the potential of RapidSMS technology to accelerate the diffusion of and to help reinforce positive social change : A man wanted to have his young daughter cut, despite the fact that his village had collectively decided to abandon the harmful traditional practice of female genital cutting. Other villagers sent messages to the Community Forum to warn community members of the man’s intentions. The news spread rapidly, and in the face of overwhelming social pressure, the man renounced his intention to have his daughter cut.  As many community members we spoke with pointed out, mobile technology can be harnessed to accelerate the grassroots movement in Senegal for the nationwide abandonment of FGC and early/forced marriage. 

Back in Dakar, the Jokko team is finalizing a new and improved Jokko module- the fruit of our Capitalization Seminar back in May- and preparing for the early Fall launch of the Jokko community telecenters, in collaboration with Rural Energy Foundation.

Lindsay Powell


Lyndal Bale said...

This is really wonderful news and it seems so simple to operate. Is it as simple as it sounds? It seems to me that this mobile phone communication network could be emulated all over Africa and thus hasten the end of FGC much sooner than we hope.

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