Ory Okolloh is turning heads in cyberspace. A young Kenyan lawyer and activist whose family struggled to send her to school and whose father died of AIDS, she is bent on communicating that Africa is no sob story. Okolloh is devoting her life to letting the world know—through her blogs and “labor of love” digital projects—that the continent is loaded with the power of the people and their solutions. Today she is on the forefront of a wave of young Africans who are using the power of blogging, cell-phone texting, and web-enabled democracy to push their countries forward and help Africans to truly connect.
When Kenya erupted in violence in early 2008 after the presidential elections and the government clamped down with media bans, Okolloh had a vision. With the help of web-savvy friends, she created Ushahidi, a web-based map where Kenyans can report real-time acts of violence (and acts of peace) from their cell phones. Ushahidi, which means ‘’testimony’’ in Swahili, has captured widespread support and is currently being released as a free application that anyone can customize to bring awareness to crises in their own regions, from rapes to looting, from the Congo to Chechnya.
When the idea for Ushahidi struck, Okolloh already had her own personal and popular blog: Kenyan Pundit, as well as another site she runs, called Mzalendo, which monitors the performance of Kenya’s parliamentarians. Mzalendo enables Kenyans to talk directly to their officials, and helps ordinary people understand what the government is doing, so they can hold them accountable. Through Mzalendo, and now Ushahidi, Okolloh deeply believes that the people of Africa, once connected through digital projects like Mzalendo and Ushahidi, can break the cycle of exploitation by corrupt leaders. And, in doing so, she hopes that Africans will start exercising their right to hold officials accountable en masse.
“Accountability stems from demand,” she insists. “It is important for us to keep an eye on the political class and to ensure that the promises they have made are delivered,” she continues. “Otherwise we will find ourselves in the same scenario in a few years.”
In a few years, there’s hope that the political landscape will be far more democratic and responsive to ordinary people in Kenya and elsewhere, thanks to visionaries like Okolloh. Although Okolloh once had an opportunity to have a six-figure salary because of her talent and law degree, she’s long since forsaken that.
She’s in for the long haul: “Because my passion is here, because I want to do things that are fulfilling. Because I’m so needed here.”