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Africans pour anger, sadness onto Twitter over famine

Thousands of Africans are taking to Twitter to vent grief and anger over another famine in Somalia, raising money and comforting each other -- a stark illustration of a continent embracing a digital future but lamenting timeworn failings.
/ Source: Reuters

Thousands of Africans are taking to Twitter to vent grief and anger over another famine in Somalia, raising money and comforting each other -- a stark illustration of a continent embracing a digital future but lamenting timeworn failings.

When news began to break that what many referred to as "the F-word" was now official in parts of the war-wracked Horn of Africa country, the social networking site Twitter lit up.

By mid-Friday, some Twitter statistics websites said that twenty tweets a minute were about the famine and a growing number were from Africans who previously had not engaged in such widespread pan-continental debates using what is still relatively new technology.

Debates that had raged through weeks of drought gained momentum when the famine was declared Wednesday and many were angry things had deteriorated so much.

"The emergency in the Horn of Africa should be attributed to respective governments and al Shabaab (Somalia's Islamist rebels) not the lack of rain," wrote a Twitter account called Conflict Media.

Somalis, Ethiopians and Kenyans did not hold back from attacking their governments for failing to prepare for a predictable drought and for reacting slowly when it became clear some 10 million people were going hungry in the three countries.

"It's just depressing that it's a pattern and EVERY time we're *surprised* the drought is here!" wrote Leyou from Ethiopia.

Though Twitter penetration in Africa is still much lower than other parts of the world, it is growing fast as technology improves, mobile networks spread and thousands are now accessing the Internet on their phones.

Many Africans on Twitter recognized the contrast between themselves -- normally middle class professionals -- and the people who have spent days trekking across parched deserts, under attack from hyenas and bandits, looking for food.

Some professing themselves guilty for having so much in contrast to those in the refugee camps, Africa's tweeters and Africans living in the West used Twitter to organize small fundraising events and to tell confused Westerners to what charities they should donate.

"Donate the cost of a fast food meal. Help somebody in need," wrote Dilaun White, linking to a website that outlined different options for people who wanted to give money.

The Africans on the network often use it to complain about negative portrayals of the continent that they say Westerners sometimes perpetuate, and to publicize their fast-growing economies, mushrooming industries and emerging middle classes.


"With such abounding beauty, why the negative Africa images?" asked a Twitter account called All Africa, though other users felt the often shocking and disturbing images were needed to raise cash to feed the hungry.

At times their anger was scattershot, directed at "corrupt" governments, "interfering" foreign charities and the international media who tweeters said only show up when there were dying children to film. "Say no to human interest stories," wrote Twitter user Anddiswa, who told Reuters she cried as she watched foreign reporters interview a woman at a refugee camp.

"The only thing she had left was her dignity and they took it for that sensationalist effect," Anddiswa said, reflecting a view held by many Africans on Twitter.

For them, the foreign media and international funding always arrive too late because prevention doesn't make such a splash as footage of emaciated children and stories of "haunted" adults.

The shortfall in cash to respond to the crisis fueled many of the complaints, with richer African nations such as Nigeria and South Africa singled out for criticism.

"The 'African solution' in Libya is to do nothing. The same with the drought. It's called non-interference!" wrote Ugandan lawyer David Mpanga from Kampala.

Africans used the social networking site to comfort each other, too, pouring out raw emotion as the story unfolded, many tweeting to each other that they were weeping.

They shared stories of fathers killing themselves rather than watching their children die, women arriving at refugee camps carrying dead babies, and one man who cut open his stomach.

"Oh God, please have mercy on those facing famine!" wrote Salha L Kaitesi.

Somali rapper K'naan -- whose anthem of African unity, "Wavin' Flag," was often played at South Africa's World Cup last year -- perhaps best summed up the span of emotional contradictions many Africans are going through this week.

"I love you but you're killing me, Somalia," he wrote on Twitter. "Killing me."