Emeka Okafor : "I’m very much for the localization of the maker movement"

emeka-okafor-TEDX

Emeka Okafor at TEDGLOBAL 2012 in Scotland. Photo Ryan Lash for TED (ccbync)

Since 2009 Maker Faire settled in Africa. In 2011, its 3rd edition took place in Cairo, Egypt. We interviewed Emeka Okafor, an entrepreneur from New York, and initiator of the Maker Faire Africa (MFA). Here is an excerpt, about a sore point : isn’t there a form a cultural and technical neo-colonialism at work ?

Before we start, a focus on the terminology for the newbies : what’s the difference between an hacker and a maker ? Both terms are often mistaken : both communities are very close and favor creativity, ingeniosity, sharing. Makers however focus more on hardware whereas hackers can also work on software. Historically speaking, it is their playing field, since back at the M.I.T in the sixties. It is also said that hackers are more subversive than makers : hacking is a state of mind that applies to all fields, and particularly the political one with a strong stance on everything that concerns digital freedoms. Finally, hackers also enjoy taking the beaten paths.

All of this of course, is merely theoretical, all that really matters is what we do.

One could easily object that the western hacking community is applying its views and ways – even sometimes with commercial purposes – to the African one. For instance, take MakerBot, they donated a 3D printer to Maker Faire Africa in Cairo last year. Even the word "hacking" itself is an western one, the figure of the maker is strongly tied to american history, as a self-made country. The people of Africa could use or create their own words, they might already have ones and we don’t even know about it. What do you think ?

I think you bring up a very very important subject, and this is something we like to emphasize within the places we go [with Maker Faire]. We don’t see this as someone coming in and saying “this what making is”. More often than not, the making was occuring there, before we arrived and called it "making". So if anything, I personnally see making as empowering those already on the ground, and giving them a platform to talk about the importance of what they are doing as opposed to coming in from New York or London or Paris and trying to tell people “this is what making is”.

And I think it is important, when we look at Lamba Labs, when I have had discussions with people like Bilal [Ghalib, ed. is an american of iraqi origin who helps communities set up hackerspaces with his organization Gemsi] and some of my other colleagues like Jennifer Wolfe [ed . a designer, member of MFA] , one of the things we emphasize is the need to reappropriate the name and have the people there understand it and understand it as they feel they should understand it. It’s not about what happens in San Francisco or London, or Moscow, it has to be how people in Tunis or Cairo see it.

makerfaire africa

L’imprimante 3D offerte par MakerBot pour Maker Faire Africa 2011 au Caire. Image CC Flickr CC by sa maltman23

I am not familiar with Egypt, I am somewhat more familiar with places like Nigeria, and one of the thing that I see as a similarity between many of these countries, is that there’s always a need to think that it’s better if it’s from the outside. Or that it is of a higher standard, and we overlook the brilliant work that has been done on the ground.

So, if we are to look at where hacking and making come from and at these labs and spaces growing in the future and the thinking around it, it should be about recovering what we already have. And even choosing its own name for it. I would like to see events like Maker Faire Africa that are not called Maker Faire Africa, that are based on beautiful, evocative, national terms. It’s really important that people do not see this as something that is foreign, because even here in the United States of America, many people when you say "making" will tell you "we’ve been doing it for years, what’s the big deal ?" That kind of conversation is even happening here in the USA.

Design pour l'édition 2012 de Maker Faire Afric au Caire par Jennifer

Design pour l’édition 2012 de Maker Faire Africa au Caire par Jennifer Wolfe

So I think whether it’s in Cairo or in Beirut, in Lagos, in Kenya, or in India, people need to say essentially that this is about us being creative in a broad range of fields and admiring what we do. If you go to a Maker Faire in New York City, you see people from the local food community, being proud of the food they make. Why can’t that be happening in Cairo, why can’t we have the crafts people from the rural parts of wherever in Middle East or North Africa reexamine what they’re doing and then reblending that with what is new and create something that is unique ?

So I am very much for the localization of the maker movement and the orientation towards assessing and valuing  what each country, what each region, each culture has, that is unique to them and celebrating  it.


Taking it further :

Emeka Okafor’s blog, Timbuktu Chronicles

When consumers become creators

Tinkers, Hackers, Farmers, Crafters

Africa, the new craddle of hacking


Surely there are many typos, don’t kick us, we’re not sub-editors nor professional translators, we do everything ourselves with our two pairs of hands and eyes :) Point them – the typos huh – out to us gently, in the comments or by email hackerscitearabe [at] gmail [dot] com.

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