By Alpha Abebe
It should come as no surprise that diasporas and the internet are such good bedfellows. They are both in the business of obscuring national boundaries and building long distance relationships. Independently, they often coalesce into deterritorialized communities, facilitate collaboration, and become sites of fierce contestation. Brought together, they work in much the same way. Scholars and commentators caught on to this long ago, and have been examining the social, political and economic impacts of diasporas online. Debating Eritrean independence, the 2005 Ethiopian election, Oromo nationalism, Harari identity politics, the London conference on Somalia – many of the processes that have shaped these constructs, events and movements happened online in virtual spaces created by the diaspora. The extent to which this has facilitated the circulation of progressive or regressive discourse and action is up for debate in each case. However, what has become clear is that the internet has and will continue to play an instrumental role in connecting the East African diaspora to issues of the Horn.
As a new generation emerges from the offspring of East African migrants, they too have created online spaces to negotiate their relationships to their countries of heritage. In many respects, they have entered into this scene far more equipped – more access to resources, more tech savvy, more platforms, etc. However, their social, political and economic ties to these countries would appear to be less direct, begging the question – what does their web presence look like? As you would imagine, it is quite diverse. There is Bernos.com, where one can buy a stylish Horn-of-Afro-centric tshirt and share dating advice on the same website. Then there is OPride.com, an aggregator of Oromo and regionally related news stories. Tadias.com is an online magazine often profiling the stories of Ethiopian-Americans who have found mainstream success. Abesha.com (currently on hiatus) was a pioneer in many respects, and created platforms for political debate, showcasing of art, and building community among young Ethiopians and Eritreans in the diaspora. Add to this the vast number of virtual spaces, including websites, facebook pages, twitter feeds, etc. that mobilized a rapid humanitarian response to the recent famine in Somalia, among a generation of people in the Somali diaspora – many of whom have never stepped foot on the continent. Finally, there is HornLight.com, a new player on scene, created to challenge mainstream narratives about the Horn through the stories and contributions from people in the diaspora.
As new generations of East African diasporans create their own cyber spaces, there will be many new and old questions to ask. What role do these spaces – including this one – have in shaping issues on the ground in Africa? How are communities formed online, and what are the politics of these communities? How are people mobilized online, and what social movements emerge? How do old and new axes of privilege intersect, how are they challenged, and how are they reproduced? In a region as dynamic as the Horn, and the increase in size and visibility of its diasporas, I suspect we will be returning to these questions frequently over the next several years.
Alpha Abebe is a current PhD student at Oxford. Please see more information about her work here.