More than four months after the appearance of the first Covid-19 case in Africa, the continent has not become the epicenter of the pandemic. On the contrary, despite the most alarmist projections, the health crisis has still not occurred. On the other hand, the socio-economic crisis is there. A first start came from the call of 25 African intellectuals reacting to the announced disaster. Since then, what has happened? How have citizens mobilized? It is with the firm will to adapt to African contexts that the professor at Omar-Bongo University in Libreville Bonaventure Mvé Ondo has gathered around him several actors from civil society to create a participative platform called Les Masques bleus. Behind this highly poetic name hides a multitude of concrete projects, initiated by citizens, and likely to be replicated across the continent. We can thus learn how to make a prototype artificial respirator thanks to Cameroonian and Togolese engineers, online also tutorials on the conversion of tanker trucks distributing drinking water into tools for cleaning and disinfecting the streets of several capitals, but the site is also full of educational projects for toddlers and many others. So, is it the return of the sacrosanct African solidarity? The philosopher, accustomed to circles of reflection such as The Workshops of thought alongside Felwine Sarr and Achille Mbembe, wants to go beyond the current crisis by proposing sustainable lines of thought for Africa. He confided in Point Afrique.
Le Point Afrique: What was the trigger behind the Blue Masks initiative?
Bonaventure Mvé Ondo: The click was made in two stages. First there is the shock with the death, on March 24, of Manu Dibango. This was all the more shocking since I myself had just emerged from a severe pneumonia that some had mistaken for the Covid-19. Then there was April 10 in the magazine Young Africa, about fifty African intellectuals who launched a call to mobilize the intelligence, resources and creativity of Africans to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. After the tribute to Manu Dibango, we felt an emergency: what to do? What contribution could we make there urgently to the continent? I submitted this question to a few friends first, then others called me: teachers, researchers, business leaders, association managers, senior managers, but also young people and retirees. And the idea was refined. In addition to the interventions of our States and international institutions, we had to be able to mobilize our know-how and choose a few targets. This is how the Blue Masks were born.
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The collaborative and civic dimension is very much highlighted. Why ?
It seemed to me that the answer to our collateral problems of the health crisis (closing of schools, colleges, high schools and universities) was not only technical and financial, we had to mobilize the actors themselves to participate in the invention of good solutions, in the implementation of good practices. This is what we have called the collaborative and citizen method, or collective intelligence. And the place where this delivery of solutions and even their sharing are possible is itself like the guardhouse (or men’s hut) in our villages and the kitchens (or women’s hut). This is the role that our Blue Masks platform plays. We believe that one of the major roles of the African intellectual is not to invent utopias, but to clarify the concepts, to help to see what one does not see and which is however already there. And what is already there is that in all our countries, on all our campuses, in all our schools, ideas are emerging, solutions are appearing every day. We thought it was important and urgent to mobilize all these actors and make their actions and products visible.
What we mean is that there are not, on the one hand, those who have ideas and, on the other, those who must apply them. True intelligence is collective and must be shared. This is how the continent can move forward more surely.
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What is your strategy when the continent is very unequal in educational terms?
As you know, my commitment to education in Africa is very old. This is why I became a teacher. At Omar-Bongo University as well as within the Agence universitaire de la francophonie, where I was in office for twenty years, I have never lost sight of the fact that our continent only had a future he started by taking care of himself. And, for that, he had to be given tools. This is how I was behind, with others, the creation and implementation in all of our French-speaking African countries of several initiatives such as French-speaking digital campuses, regional centers of excellence and even the Pan African Institute for University Governance… We had to reduce the digital and scientific divide in our universities and research centers just as we had to improve university governance…
In the face of the academic vacuum created by the pandemic, we have established ties with organizations such as Le Savoir pour tous, Up to Ten, BABATv, LingoZing, Maxicours, Boowa and Kwala, Dirlo school, My home school, Support67 or the Canope network, all of which have agreed to be our partners and help respond to the crisis. And this, for free. It is an invaluable contribution and a huge success. In total, from April 24, the date of our launch, to 1er In June, more than 7.2 million Internet users from African countries accessed our sites, or more than one million per week. It’s huge when you know the difficulty of Internet networks and electricity problems …
They have subscribed to our concept of collective intelligence and each has made available free resources, sometimes with very innovative forms. This allowed us to support the greatest number.
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Why did you bet on digital when in Africa, finally, Internet access is not yet widespread?
Like many Africans, I started my studies in Africa and I finished them in France. At the time, to do our doctoral thesis, we had no choice, notably because of the lack of scientific documentation. With the advent of digital, things could finally change. We no longer had to expatriate and leave for years in Europe. We could stay put. This is what led us to create digital campuses at the time, as early as 1995… Unfortunately, no one believed it at the time. And yet, 10 years later, the majority of our public universities at the time had such a scientific and digital opening up tool. I continue to think that all of our education systems need digital technology to not only take account of the demographic explosion in this sector but also to be able to improve performance and quality. This is why, for me, digital is one of the keys to the present and the future of Africa *. A few moments ago, as a teacher at Senghor University in Alexandria, I have just, due to the closure of the borders, provided distance master training for 34 students from this country… This does not replace not face-to-face, but it helps a lot.
What types of concrete actions stood out the most at Les Masques bleus?
The Blue Masks carry out three types of actions: awareness-raising actions, mobilization actions and civic activities. Among those that are the most followed, there is La Minute poétique by Nadine Mercier which offers participatory video-poems. It is for everyone to interpret his video-poem and offer it to his loved ones. It is also a participatory video-poem, ” The Departure of the Sacred Elephants ”, which was interpreted by several personalities from Africa and France to pay homage to Manu Dibango.
There are also the Boowa and Kwala and Up to Ten sites which offer educational and educational activities for children under 6 who have been very popular with children and have greatly helped parents during periods of confinement. The teenagers received digital comics from LingoZING to learn foreign languages in a fun way. I must say they loved it. We are also working on the concept with our vernacular languages.
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What could be the future of this platform after Covid-19? Will it last?
We want to help build the Africa of tomorrow using this platform. It therefore has a vocation to last. The Covid-19 was a trigger because we wanted to bring the best of the worst. The health crisis is not over and its dramatic social consequences are far from over.
And there is no shortage of problems which concern both individuals and institutions. In many of our countries, many citizens feel misunderstood, their expectations appear to them to be unfulfilled. Worse, refractory and suspicious of politicians and even religious structures, they no longer know how to participate, how to help, how to get involved. There is a gap that must be tried to reduce, beyond the political and social crises. In recent years, with others, we have started to reflect on innovative systems that could help ensure better identification of the expectations of populations by their leaders and therefore better consideration. This is how we developed the concept of civocracy. Namely the return to the citizen … And the restoration of this link goes through the rehabilitation of collective intelligence.
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What are the returns?
The feedback is both very encouraging and multifaceted. Certain governments and certain institutions have approached us. Certain associations and even certain universities… As a proverb from my region says, a single finger cannot wash the face. We must all get started and everyone must commit to the extent of his means, his possibilities and his time. We will continue to mobilize individuals and structures both on the continent and abroad.
To develop Africa, we must convince the leaders of today as well as those of tomorrow that the method of collective intelligence and participatory governance is the right one.
Many educational projects were launched during this period. Do you believe that a real turning point can take place in the priorities that have guided African societies until now?
Yes, if you stop being autistic in decision-making and if you learn to listen.
How to value education in a perspective of sustainable development of African economies?
The educational offer must be adapted to the needs of the development prospects of African economies. Here again, governments must rely on participatory governance and collective intelligence. For example, I noticed that we were in dire need of well-trained technicians and senior technicians (BTS, license) and that, at the same time, several countries were facing a sharp rise in juvenile delinquency, mainly due to the lack of prospects for these latter. Faced with this situation, we designed and proposed to a few actors, such as municipalities, governments and others, to create social reintegration centers.
Such centers would allow young Africans in a situation of backwardness or school failure, delinquency, or even marginalization, to get out of delinquency thanks to a reintegration-training cycle of 2 years, namely 6 months of reintegration by coaching solid and dynamic and 18 months of professional training in manual and technical trades. These young trained technicians, cabinet makers, electricians, plumbers, etc., would then actively participate in the development of their country. And the range of these training courses remains open because it must be adapted to real local needs.
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Many welcome this surge of solidarity or rather this surge of commitment that crosses the continent in the face of the pandemic. Are you surprised?
No, Africa has always stood out for its solidarity. This solidarity can also be seen through the commitment of the African diaspora. In African societies, family solidarity is a cardinal value, even if it is mechanical. We have to go further and to a higher level. We must move from the solidarity that keeps the heads above the water of those who risk drowning to the solidarity that allows them to invent their future in a sustainable way. The Blue Masks want to have this vocation.
Before the Covid-19 episode, voices wanted a change of model to move towards a more sustainable, more constructive tomorrow. What is your thinking?
For years now, with friends like Felwine Sarr, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Achille Mbembe, notably through The Workshops of Thought, we have understood the need for the continent to come out of its long torpor and subjugation for the help invent his future. The Blue Masks are one of the consequences of this type of reflexive work which goes beyond. Mobilizing intelligence is good, but mobilizing each of us by asking him to contribute to the common edifice that we are all building is better. It is also one of the lessons that we can learn from the philosophy and action of Nelson Mandela. “United, we will succeed. But on condition that we all agree to discuss everything, that is to say, projects, actions and how to protect the interests of all.
What place could science, research and innovation occupy in this day after?
The participatory digital platform used by the Blue Masks is an innovative digital tool that accelerates the processing of feedback from proposals made by each.
We then speak of ‘Tech for good’, that is to say a technology serving the common good. The guideline for science, research and innovation is to design tools that are primarily useful for the well-being of individuals and communities.
What must Africa change in its relations with other continents in order to no longer be the red lantern continent in this area of education?
Africa must change its paradigm, method and way of thinking. It has no future if it isolates itself from other continents. She has no future either if she becomes the pale copy of others. Senghor said “assimilate without assimilating”. This truth is even more valid today. To assimilate is to learn from others. But to meet them, you have to have a self that is different from them. Education must therefore become the place of excellence through the quality of its teachers and its programs. And quality means here not only the highest scientific level, but also the capacity to respond effectively and genuinely to the problems that our countries face **.
What are the paths that Africa should follow to rebuild itself socially, culturally and even spiritually from this experience?
The current pandemic has confirmed the solidarity, commitment and even the spirituality of Africans. These values are cultural heritages that must now be brought to bear intelligently to create the Africa of tomorrow. And the school can and must play a major role here. This is why it is important to help in the overall improvement of our education systems. This involves strengthening the capacities of its stakeholders (teachers, researchers, administration, etc.) and concerns, for example, activities to overhaul study programs, teacher training, or various reorganizations of educational governance structures . The school must also learn to train a proactive African with a new state of mind. We must help him get out of the logic of the outstretched arm … And this change must be general and collective.
In what ways can the continent conceive its own approach to the pandemic while respecting African societies in order to allow the various possibilities to hatch?
It is usual to consider that Africa is a scientific desert. It’s wrong. For decades, large scientific laboratories, such as the MRTC, created by the late Professor Doumbo Ogobara in Mali, not only exist, but sometimes hold the upper hand in the global response against pandemics. The MRTC is the reference center with the largest number of articles and theses done on malaria. He is still on the run for the malaria vaccine. In addition, scientific research has become international. African researchers are participating in a number of research studies on the Covid-19. There are P4 type laboratories in Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, etc. And, in the work that is being carried out, taking into account African medicinal plants as well as our endogenous knowledge is effective, but cannot be exclusive.
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What role can civil society play at this time to prevent Africa from repeating the past and identifying the main lines of a better future?
The role of civil society is to offer, to help keep hope. We must re-educate in an intellectual culture of the concrete and the prospective. Let’s learn to get out of sterile criticism to become constructive. We also learn to no longer think of the world for the logic of domination…
The coming world will no longer be simply that of the westernization of the world, but rather that of its co-construction by all. And the latter is only possible on two conditions, namely: on the one hand, the constitution of a world consciousness, beyond the borders and determinisms linked to race, origin, sex ; on the other hand, the co-construction of knowledge and science, beyond the disciplines and institutions that govern its production. And it’s vital for all of us. Because the science that will have to be developed tomorrow can no longer simply be a Western-centered discourse, but a mutually fruitful science for all and for which the bodies of legitimation and management will be shared and more responsible. The coming world will still need looks from the North, but more than ever need looks from the South turned towards the north … For that, we must get out of subalternity and mimicry. Civil society has more than ever an important role to play in this sense because it alone can invite us to come out of selfishness and to take into account the diversity of needs as expectations … It alone can avoid us the mistakes of the past because it alone can not only help us heal from our traumas and our fears but also make possible a space of dialogue where each can be heard from the other, without condition.
* Since 2010, Africa has posted the largest worldwide increase in the number of Internet users each year, with an average annual growth of 20%. We are now approaching the threshold of 40% of the African population using the Internet. This strong increase is driven by the high penetration rate of the mobile phone in Africa, which is more than 80%. Africans are mainly “Mobinautes”.
** Bonaventure Mvé Ondo is the author, among others, of a bilingual essay: Africa The Scientific Divide, Africa The scientific divide, Futuribles, Paris, 2005.