Almost five years have passed since I walked away from a promising career in advertising to venture into the world of what I’ve come to know as international development. Back then, I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, but I did absolutely know that I would be happy doing it in Uganda. Back then I didn’t know there other members of the Diaspora yearning to be agents of change on the continent. I certainly didn’t know that I was part of a very unique group of Africans living abroad and awakening to the possibility of what Africa could be.
As early as 2007, my eyes began to witness the full potential of our impact through remittances. I remember wondering if there were other members of the Diaspora feeling the same pull to the continent that I was. I was wondering if, like me, they were putting their siblings through higher education or investing in land. The more I wondered, the more I researched, and the more inspired and driven I was. It felt like I was rediscovering a continent I had left almost 20 years earlier as a child.
There were many members of the African Diaspora working hard to be catalysts of change on the continent. The advent of social media sites like Friendster, MySpace Facebook, and Twitter meant that we could discover each other very easily and across distances. I still haven’t met many of the Diasporas that collaborate with online. Africa, on the other hand, was also busy bridging the communication gap that allowed us to stay connected with our communities in faster and ever cheaper ways. Many of us are transnationals, spending much of our available time traveling back to the continent. Today, the promise of a new Africa is beginning to take shape. When I consider it’s relative youth (40% under the age of 15), the rise of mobile connectivity, and the powerful tandem of the Diaspora’s intellectual capacity and financial muscle, it is hard not to imagine that a renaissance is at hand and the possibilities are boundless.
I have come to consider myself a transnational digital Diaspora and an entrepreneur. The use of social media and ‘web 2.0’ communication tools, offers me the opportunity to engage with other passionate transnationals. Project Diaspora (PD) was designed as a way to discuss Diaspora related topics, and discover hard-working members of the Diaspora. PD also allowed me to look at development through a business and entrepreneurial lens. Our two economic development projects, Women of Kireka, and Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers, highlight the need for us members of the Diaspora to look at the opportunities that entrepreneurship offers in our communities, but also the dignity that it restores. By using our intellectual capacity and our remittances to invest in the grassroots, we foster a sustainable culture of self-dependence while contributing to local capacity growth.
But I will have to say that the most rewarding project I have worked on so far under PD has been Villages in Action (VIA). The VIA platform was launched as a way to bring the development microphone to the last mile. Too often, the development elite talk about the poor as numbers and statistical slices of pie charts. The poor are never invited to the conversation to speak for themselves. The VIA platform ensures that remote villages in Uganda also get an opportunity to contribute to the conversation. There’s nothing more rewarding than planning a conference in a village where there’s no running water, electricity or infrastructure, and handing over the microphone. You hear the names, the stories, the dreams and ambitions, the trials and triumphs, that reveal themselves to be a common thread we all share as humans. Most of all, you also get to see their faces, their smiles - real people speaking in their own voice. Development should be about this, the human side. For us members of the Diaspora, it should be our duty to reclaim the microphone, the shovel and the credit for the future direction of our continent. Perhaps along the way, we’ll also reclaim our dignity.
TMS Ruge is currently serving as the lead social media strategist for the Connect4Climate campaign at the World Bank and the co-founder of Project Diaspora.