News from the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria

Since 2003, Catalan artist Antoni Abad and I have been working on a series of projects dealing with overlooked communities around the world expressing and sharing their views and opinions the Web. So far, we have worked with taxi drivers in Mexico City, young gypsies in Lleida and León (Spain), street prostitutes in Madrid, people with reduced mobility in Barcelona and Geneva, Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica, motorcycle couriers in Sao Paulo, displaced and demobilized people in Colombia and, more recently, young women living in the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria. In these projects, the participants are able to upload images and sounds directly from a mobile phone to a web page, allowing them to publish all sorts of stories on-the-fly.

The young women living in southern Algeria, who come from different camps, get together periodically and discuss the topics they would like to publish on the page. So far, their interests have concentrated on subjects such as children, women, work, health or education. They are aware of the power of sharing their views on the Internet, and see it as a way of raising awareness about their current situation: even if the pictures do not depict the conflict directly, every image refers to it implicitly. Each of the images they publish is tagged using an appropriate word, creating thus a folksonomy that reveals which are the most interesting topics for the group.

Participants of canal*SAHARAUI

Participants of canal*SAHARAUI

The project canal*SAHARAUI started on October 2009 with an initial group of young people: ten women and one man. Their task was to self-organize in order to publish images and sounds using one of the two available mobile phones. The fact that the mobile phones used in the project are shared raises the need for coordination: the group has to decide how and when the phones change hands. We observed that this shared usage of mobile phones (normally regarded as strictly individual object) created a feeling of compromise within the group, since those who have the phones have the responsibility of publishing images and sounds which are interesting and relevant for the rest. Sadly, the group which started last year was not able to continue with their work, mostly because of multiple technical difficulties. However, on October 2010 we went back to the camps to re-activate the project, now with a new group of eleven young women. Almost one month later, it’s still too soon to be enthusiastic; yet it looks like the new group’s efforts will last longer, thanks to better coordination and more stable conditions and infrastructures.

As you can imagine, sustaining a project such as canal*SAHARAUI is difficult because of many reasons. The Sahrawi refugees in southern Algeria are living under precarious conditions: there is a lack of almost everything. Yet, they have a number of satellite dishes which allow them to connect to the Internet. This is something they value greatly, although the limited bandwidth and the harsh weather conditions make it really hard to surf the Web there. It’s nearly impossible to send an email in the middle of a sandstorm! In the camps, we found a great interest in keeping the project alive; however, we also found that access to the Internet is a commons that must be managed. Given the narrow bandwidth (128 Kbits on a good day), one cannot have the luxury of downloading mp3 files or videos without harming other people’s connection speeds. People need to be very sensible about each other’s rights to use the shared bandwidth.

Working on canal*SAHARAUI

Working on canal*SAHARAUI

This project has taught us a lot, and we are determined to keep it going as much as we can. In any case, I would like to invite you to take a look at what these young women are publishing in canal*SAHARAUI. They know that Antoni and I will try to do our best to spread their images and words far and wide. And they hope that this can make a difference, however small it may be.

2 Responses to “News from the Sahrawi refugee camps in southern Algeria”

  • Eugenio, this project is awesome. Do you have a sense of what kind of expressive genres (such as: storytelling, poetry, jokes, etc.) are native to these various populations and whether they would benefit from computer- or phone-based tools tailored to them?

  • hi eddeaddad,

    thank you! well, potentially all kinds of genres could benefit from new means of communication. but in this case i think that the “genre” that benefits the most from this mode of communication (image + audio clip recorded and published via mobile phone) is the interview or short feature, in which a specific topic is briefly touched upon…