Skip to main content

Moving the centre to design social media in rural Africa


Efforts to design voice-based, social media platforms for low-literacy communities in developing countries have not widened access to information in the ways intended. This article links this to who describes the relations that constitute personhood and how these relations are expressed in designing and deploying systems. I make these links oriented by critique in human–computer interaction that design continues a history of colonialism and embeds meanings in media that disrupt existing communication practices. I explore how we translated ‘logics’ about sociality through logics located outside of the rural South African community that we targeted for design and deployment. The system aimed to enable inhabitants to record, store and share voice files using a portable, communally owned display. I describe how we engaged with inhabitants, to understand needs, and represented and abstracted from encounters to articulate requirements, which we translated into statements about technology. Use of the system was not as predicted. My analysis suggests that certain writing cultures, embedded in translations, reify knowledge, disembody voices and neglect the rhythms of life. This biases social media towards individualist logics and limits affordances for forms, genres and other elements of communication that contribute to sociality. Thus, I propose oral practices offer oppositional power in designing digital bubbles to support human togetherness and that we can enrich design by moving the centre—a phrase taken from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Moving the centre: the struggle for cultural freedoms, James Currey, London, 1993) who insists that liberation from colonialism requires plural sites of creativity. To realize this potential, we need radically different approaches that enable symmetrical translation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  • Adichie CM (2006) Our ‘Africa’ Lenses. Monday, November 13, 2006

  • Achebe C, Brooks J (1994) The Art of Fiction No. 139: Interview of Chinua Achebe by Jerome Brooks The Paris Review.

  • Berber K (2005) Text and performance in Africa. Oral Tradition 20(2):264–277

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Best ML, Smyth TN, Serrano-Baquero D, Etherton J (2009) Designing for and with diaspora: a case study of work for the truth and reconciliation commission of Liberia. In Proc. CHI 2009. 2903–2918. ACM Press

  • Best M, Smyth TN, Etherton J, Wornyo E (2010) Uses of mobile phones in post-conflict liberia. Inf Tech Int Dev 6(2):91–108

    Google Scholar 

  • Best ML, Long WJ, Etherton J, Smyth T (2011) Rich digital media as a tool in post-conflict truth and reconciliation. Media War Conflict 4(3):231–249

  • Bhagwat P, Raman B, Sanghi D (2004) Turning 802.11 inside-out. SIG- COMM Comput Commun Rev, 34(1) 33–38. ACM Press

  • Bidwell NJ (2009) Anchoring design to rural ways of doing and saying. In Proc. INTERACT’09: the International Conference on Human–Computer Interaction. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, (5726): 686–699

  • Bidwell NJ (2010) Ubuntu in the network: humanness in social capital in rural South Africa. Interactions 17(2):68–71

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bidwell NJ, Siya MJ (2013) Situating asynchronous voice in rural Africa.In: Proc. INTERACT 2013. Springer, 36–53

  • Bidwell NJ, Winschiers-Theophilus H (2012) Audio pacemaker: walking, talking indigenous knowledge. SAICSIT’12. ACM Press. pp 149–58

  • Bidwell NJ, Reitmaier T, Marsden G, Hansen S (2010) Designing with mobile digital storytelling in rural Africa. In: Proc. CHI’10. ACM 1593–1602

  • Bidwell NJ, Winschiers-Theophilus H, Koch-Kapuire G, Chivuno-Kuria S (2011a) Situated interactions between audiovisual media and African herbal lore. Pers Ubiquit Comput 15(6):609–627

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bidwell NJ, Lalmas M, Marsden G, Dlutu B et al (2011b) Please call ME.N.U.4EVER: designing for ‘callback’ in rural Africa. Proc. IWIPS’11 117–138

  • Bidwell NJ, Reitmaier T, Rey-Moreno C et al (2013a) Timely Relations in Rural Africa. In: 12th Int’l Conf. on Social implications of computers in developing countries IFIP

  • Bidwell NJ, Siya MJ, Marsden G et al (2013b) Walking the Social Life of Solar Charging. ACM Trans Comput Human Interact 20(4):1–33

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bidwell NJ, Reitmaier T, Jampo K (2014a) Orality, gender and social audio in rural Africa. In: Proc. 11th Int’l conference on the design of cooperative systems. Springer. 225–241

  • Bidwell NJ, Robinson S, Vartiainen E et al (2014b) Designing social-media for community information sharing in rural South Africa. In: Proc. SAICSIT2014. ACM Press

  • Burrell J (2010) Evaluating shared access: social equality and the circulation of mobile phones in rural uganda. J Comput Mediat Commun 15:230–250

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Castells M (2004) Afterword: why networks matter. Network Logic. DEMOS, 2004

  • Chigona W, Chigona A, Ngqokelela B, Mpofu S (2009) MXit: uses, perceptions and self-justifications. JIITO 4:1–16

    Google Scholar 

  • Cleaver, F (2001) Institutions, Agency and the limitations of participatory approaches to development. In: Participation the New Tyranny. Ed Bill Cook & Uma Kothari, Zed Books. pp 36–55

  • Coetzee JM (2013) On Nelson Mandela (1918–2013). Retrieved Feb 2014 from:

  • Cook B, Kothari U (2001) Participation the New Tyranny. Zed Books. pp 36–55

  • Dodson L, Sterling L, Bennett J (2013) Minding the gaps: cultural, technical and gender-based barriers to mobile use in oral-language berber communities. Proc. ICTD’13. ACM. pp 79–88

  • Finnegan R (2007) The oral and beyond: doing things with words in Africa. James Curry/Uni. of Chicago Pr

  • Friedman B, Hendry DG (2012) The envisioning cards: a toolkit for catalyzing humanistic and technical imaginations. Proc. CHI’12, ACM

  • Frohlich D, Rachovides D, Riga K, Bhat R, Frank M, Edirisinghe E, Wickramanayaka D, Jones M, Harwood W (2009) StoryBank: mobile digital storytelling in a development context. In Proc. CHI ‘09, ACM. pp 1761–1770

  • Frohlich D, Robinson S, Eglinton K, Jones M, Vartiainen E (2012) Creative cameraphone use in rural developing regions. In: Proc. MobileHCI. ACM Press

  • Gill SP (2012) Rhythmic synchrony and mediated interaction: towards a framework of rhythm in embodied interaction. AI & SOCIETY 27, 1, pp 111–127

  • Gorman T, Rose E, Yaaqoubi J et al (2011) Adapting usability testing for oral, rural users. In: Proc. CHI’11, ACM Pr. pp 1437–1440

  • Gyekye K (1987) An essay on African philosophical thought: the Akan conceptual scheme. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Hallen B (2009) A short history of African philosophy (2nd Edn)

  • Harrell FD (2007) Cultural roots for computing: the case of african diasporic orature and computational narrative in the GRIOT system.In: Proc. DAC’07

  • Henkel H, Stirrat R (2001) Participation as spiritual duty, empowerment as secular subjection. In: Participation the New Tyranny. Ed Bill Cook & Uma Kothari, Zed Books. pp 168–184

  • Hull G, Schultz K (2001) Literacy and learning out of school: a review of theory and research. Rev Edu Res 71(4):575–611

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hutchins EL, Hollan JD, Norman DA (1985) Direct manipulation interfaces. Human Comput Interact 1(4):311–338

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ikuenobe P (2006) Philosophical perspectives on communalism and morality in African traditions. Lexington Books

  • Ingold T (2007) Lines: a brief history. Routledge

  • Irani L, Vertesi IJ, Dourish P, Philip K, Grinter RE (2010) Postcolonial computing: a lens on design and development. In Proc. CHI’10 ACM. pp 1311–1320

  • Irobi E (2008) The problem with post-colonial theory: re-theorizing African performance, orature and literature in the age of globalization and diaspora studies. Sentinel Lit Q 2:1

    Google Scholar 

  • Jousse M (2000) The anthropology of geste and rhythm. In: E. Sienaert (eds) Translated in collaboration with J. Conolly. Cape Town: Mantis

  • Kaschula R (2002) The bones of the ancestors are shaking: xhosa oral poetry in context. Juta, Cape Town

    Google Scholar 

  • Kaschula RH (2004) Imbongi to slam: the emergence of a technologised auriture. South Afr J Folk Stud 14(2):45–58

    Google Scholar 

  • Klemmer SR, Hartmann B, Takayama L (2006) How bodies matter: five themes for interaction design. In: Proc. CHI’06, ACM, pp 140–149

  • Kreitmayer S, Laney R, Peake S, Rogers R (2013) Sharing bubbles: reflections on offline multi-surface scenarios. UbiComp ‘13

  • Ladeira I, Cutrell E (2010) Teaching with storytelling: an investigation of narrative videos for skills training. In Proceedings of ICTD 2010, the 4th ACM/IEEE

  • Lopisteguy P, Dagorret, Latapy M (2006) Interactive applications for communicational situations: assets of genre and verbal interactions. In: Proceedings of SIGDOC’06, ACM. pp 202–209

  • Maunder A, Marsden G, Harper R (2008) SnapAndGrab – Accessing and sharing contextual multi-media content using Bluetooth enabled cameraphones and large situated displays. In: Proceedings CHI 2008. ACM Press, Florence, Italy, pp 2319–2323

  • Mbiti JS (1990) African religions and philosophy. Heinemann, Harlow

    Google Scholar 

  • Medhi I, Sagar A, Toyama K, Text-Free 1 (2007) User Interfaces for Illiterate and Semiliterate Users. Information Technologies & Int’l Development 4, 37–50

  • Medhi I, Menon RS, Cutrell E, Toyama K (2012) Correlation between limited education and transfer of learning. Inf Technol Int Dev 8(2):51–65

    Google Scholar 

  • Merritt S, Bardzell S (2011) Postcolonial language and culture theory for HCI4D. Ext. Abstracts CHI’11 ACM. pp 1675–1680

  • Mkabela Q (2005) Using the Afro centric method in researching indigenous African culture. Qual Rep 10(1):178–189

    Google Scholar 

  • Moolla FF (2012) When orature becomes literature: somali oral poetry and folktales in Somali novels. Comparative Literature Studies 49(3):434–462

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mosse D (2001) People’s knowledge’, participation and patronage: operations and representations in rural development. In: Participation the New Tyranny. Ed. Bill Cook & Uma Kothari, Zed Books pp 36–55

  • Mudliar P, Donner J, Thies W (2012) Emergent practices around CGNet Swara, voice forum for citizen journalism in rural India. In: Proc. ICTD ‘12. ACM press. pp 159–68

  • Ndwe T, Barnard E, Mqhele E, Dlodlo E (2012) Effects of application type on the choice of interaction modality in IVR systems. In: Proc. SAICSIT’12, ACM press. pp 236–242

  • Ntibagirirwa S (2001) a wrong way: from being to having In. The African value system. In: protest and engagement: philosophy after apartheid at an historically black South African University. Edited: Patrick Giddy. The council for research in values and philosophy. pp 65–81

  • Oduor EN, Neustaedter K, Judge TK et al (2014) How Technology Supports Family Communication in Rural, Suburban, and Urban Kenya. Proc. CHI’14

  • Okephwo I (1992) African oral literature. Indiana University Press, Indianapolis

    Google Scholar 

  • Ong J (1982) Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. Routledge Press, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Oyewumi O (1997) The invention of women making an African sense of western gender discourses. U. of Minnesota Press

  • Oyewumi O (2010) Gender epistemologies in Africa: gendering traditions, spaces, social institutions, and identities. Palgrave Macmillan

  • Patel N, Chittamuru D, Jain A, Paresh D, et al (2010) Avaaj Otalo: a field study of an interactive voice forum for small farmers in rural India. In: Proc. CHI’10, ACM 733-42

  • Peters AN, Oren MA, Bidwell NJ (2012) Self-representation and friendship connections of Namibians on Facebook. 12th annual grace hopper celebration of women in computing, Oct. 3–6, Baltimore

  • Pitula K, Dysart-Gale D, Radhakrishnan TA (2010) Case study in requirements engineering for ICT4D. Inform Technol Int’l Dev 6(1):78–93

    Google Scholar 

  • Pritchard GW, Vines J (2013) Digital apartheid: an ethnographic account of racialised HCI in Cape Town Hip-Hop. In: Proc. CHI 2013

  • Reitmaier T (2012) “She looked deep into our eyes”: reflections on cross-cultural practice in rural Africa. Knowl Manag Dev J 7(3):327–339

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Reitmaier T, Bidwell NJ, Marsden G (2011) Situating digital storytelling within African communities. Int J Human Comput Stud 69(2011):283–286

    Google Scholar 

  • Reitmaier T, Bidwell NJ, Siya M, et al (2012) Communicating in designing an oral repository for rural African villages. In: Proc. IST-Africa

  • Rodil K, Rehm M, Winschiers-Theophulus H (2013) Homestead creator: using card sorting in search for culture-aware categorizations of interface objects. In: Proc. INTERACT’13, Springer. pp 437–444

  • Scribner S, Cole M (1981) The psychology of literacy. Harvard Univ. Pr, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Sherwani J, Ali N, Rosé CP, Rosenfeld R (2009) Orality-grounded HCID: understanding the Oral User. Inform Technol Int’l Dev 5(4):37–50

    Google Scholar 

  • Sloterdijk P (2011) Bubbles: spheres volume I: Microspherology, translation by Wieland Hoban, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2011

  • Smyth TN, Etherton J, Best ML (2010) MOSES: exploring new ground in media and post-conflict reconciliation. In Proc. CHI 2010. ACM Press (2010), pp 1059–1068

  • Sullivan B (2012) Freedom to learn: blending interactive voice response and radio. In: Learning with community media, (2012), chap. 21, 131–135

  • Tacchi J, Slater D, Lewis P (2003) Evaluating community based media initiatives: an ethnographic action research approach. In: Proc. IT4D, 2003

  • Taylor A (2011) Out there. In Proc.of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. pp 685–694

  • Thiong’o, N (1965) The river between. Heinemann, Publishers

  • Thiong’o N (1986) Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature. East African Publishers, James Currey Ltd/Heinemann

    Google Scholar 

  • Thiong’o N (1993) Moving the centre: the struggle for cultural freedoms. James Currey, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Thiong’o N (2009) Something torn and new: an African renaissance. Basic Books

  • Thiong’o N (2009) The myth of the tribe in African politics. Transition 1010. JSTOR Issue 101

  • Thiong’o N (2013) In the house of the interpreter: a memoir. Vintage

  • Truax B (2001) Acoustic communication. Greenwood Press, Westport

    Google Scholar 

  • Tucker W, Blake E (2008) The role of outcome mapping in developing a rural telemedicine system. In Proc. IST-Africa’08, eds. Cunningham, P. & Cunningham, M. IIMC Int. Information Management Corp

  • Turner NS (2007) The mnemonic oral tradition with special reference to the management and expression of conflict in Zulu-speaking communities. Literator 28(2):75–99

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Verran H (2001) Science and an African logic. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

    Google Scholar 

  • Walton M, Haßreiter S, Marsden G, Allen S (2012) Degrees of sharing: proximate media sharing and messaging by young people in Khayelitsha. Proc. MobileHCI’12, ACM. pp 403–412

  • Winschiers-Theophilus H, Bidwell NJ (2013) Toward an afro-centric indigenous hci paradigm. Int J Human Comput Interect 29(4):243–255

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Winschiers-Theophilus H, Bidwell NJ, Blake E, Koch Kapuire G (2012) Community consensus: design beyond participation. Design Issues 28(3):89–100

  • Wiredu K, Gyekye K (1992) Person and community: Ghanaian philosophical studies. Council for research in values and philosophy

  • Wyche SP, Schoenebeck SY, Forte A (2013) “Facebook is a luxury”: an exploratory study of social media use in rural Kenya. In: Proceedings of ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW'13). San Antonio, TX

Download references


I thank all inhabitants of Mankosi, especially LRs (Masbulele, Bongiwe, Roico, Nomphello, Senzo, Mvuzo, Nowelthu, Thumeka, Azola, and Khululwa), my neighbours and friends (Kholeka, Sibongile, Lusy, Nellie, Thatiswa, Maddy, Andre, Pedro, Domi, Roger, Judy, Nelsie, Carlos, Prune and Cody): Ndiyabulela kakhulu ngempatho endenze ndaziva ndikhuselekile kwilali yenu nangokundifundisa ukunimamela. I am grateful to Gary Marsden for the Charging Stations, his friendship and his vision that is lived in Thomas Reitmaier, who designed and developed Audio Repository and Our Voices and engaged willingly with African orality. I thank Simon Robinson and Matt Jones for tablets and MXShare, Sam Merritt for early ideas about Nguigi wa Thiong’o, Lesley Green for pointing me to Sloterdijk and Alan Chamberlain for alerting me to Irobi. I am grateful to Mounia Lalmas, Paula Kotze and Bill Tucker for their support, and Marion Watson, truna, Lilly Irani, Paul Dourish, Lisa Nathan and Satinder Gil for their confidence in me. Finally, I thank the reviewers of this article for their provocation and guidance. Our work was funded mostly by CSIR-Meraka, South Africa and partially by EPSRC Grant (EP/H042857/1).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicola J. Bidwell.

Additional information

This article is dedicated to Irie, Pebee and Vinca Jampo.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bidwell, N.J. Moving the centre to design social media in rural Africa. AI & Soc 31, 51–77 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Post-colonial computing
  • Decolonizing design
  • Oral practice
  • Personhood
  • Voice-based systems
  • Rural Africa