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Zimbabwe catches on to Facebook

Social networking site brings together far-flung friends, allows freedom of expression.

Students using computers at the launch of Facebook in Nairobi, March 27, 2008. The growth of computer literacy across Africa has facilitated a rise in the use of Facebook across the continent, especially in Zimbabwe. (Antony Njuguna/Reuters)

What do Zimbabweans do when the landlines are down, the cellular network is unreliable and newspapers are relatively expensive?

Turn to Facebook, of course.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are looking for more personal contact with friends and relatives separated by thousands of miles. Frustrated by the refusal of state-owned fixed line monopoly Tel*One to connect them to the country’s three cellular networks over a payments dispute, they are making Facebook their medium of choice in a country where telecoms are a challenge at the best of times.

Given the fact that out of a population of 12 million, some 3 million Zimbabweans live outside the country, it is inevitable that the social network is used to transcend national boundaries.

“It has reconnected me with Zimbabweans in the diaspora who I would never have been in contact with otherwise,” said Colbert Mpofu, 42, headmaster of a school outside Harare. “That’s been the greatest thing for me, using it as a reconnection tool.” Mpofu has a particular interest in classical music so Facebook connects him to people he went to school with who now live abroad where they can indulge their musical tastes.
“It is unusable here,” he said of Zimbabwe’s classical music scene. “We don’t even have an orchestra. “But Facebook puts us together as a community.”

Facebook serves a dual purpose in Zimbabwe. The social networking site helps all users keep in touch with the dispersed community. It also allows Zimbabweans, who must cope with tight press restrictions at home, to air views, opinions and information.

Currently Facebook “walls” are abuzz with complaints over Harare city council’s decision to spend $153,000 on a Mercedes Benz for the mayor at a time when the city urgently needs to invest in a new water delivery system. Elsewhere a farmers’ organization supplies the telephone numbers of senior police officers who can be contacted if members of the force try to extract “spot fines” from motorists at roadblocks.

Outbursts of indignation aside, the social networking site provides a useful facility for alerting friends and relatives to birthdays and sending holiday snaps.