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Kenya: Web Watchdog
By Andrew Heavens, BBC Focus on Africa
April - June 2007

It all got too much for Ory Okolloh when Kenya's members of parliament voted to give themselves a sizable pay rise in 2003, soon after the last national elections.

"They were getting all this money - but we had no idea what they were doing to earn that money," said the 30-year-old lawyer and member of Kenya's burgeoning blogging scene.

"Parliament is not televised. The newspapers do a lousy job of covering it. We had no idea of what was going on in our own parliament."

So she decided to do something about it. She contacted fellow Kenyan blogger M, the mysterious man behind tHiNkEr'S rOoM, and in a matter of four months they had launched a groundbreaking new website.

Called Mzalendo - the Kiswahili word for patriot - its sub-title is "Eye On Kenyan Parliament"

Mzalendo sets out to do nothing less than keep track of every bill, every speech and every MP that passes through Kenya's 1950s-style parliament house. No mean feat for two volunteers with full-time jobs, websites of their own to maintain and little to no start-up capital.

Eyewitness accounts

The site breaks new ground in the continent's political world - nothing else like it exists even in more established democratic countries like South Africa.

Part blog, part massive open database, its closest cousin is the UK website They Work For You, which keeps its own eye on the UK parliamentary system.

Ory and M used the same free software that powered their blogs to power Mzalendo - the publishing system WordPress.

Everything else, from the database down, was also free and open-source, all bolted together through M's technical skills.

It was only when they started trying to find information to put on the site that they discovered just how difficult it is to keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament.

"If you are in the public gallery without a press pass, you're not allowed to carry writing materials," Ory says.
"They search you, and take them off you. So if we want to report on a day in parliament, we have to do it from memory."
Their priority was to get hold of as much parliamentary information as possible - MPs' names and constituencies, standing orders, bills, debate transcripts - and laboriously enter it all into their database.

Volunteer bloggers and freelance journalists started adding eyewitness accounts of debates.

Then they set up a commenting system, allowing anyone to have their say about MPs, their record and any particularly hot topics of the day.

Joining in

Surprisingly, most of the people who log on to Mzalendo - currently more than 200 a day - come from rural areas.

"People are less likely to vote for someone because they are in the same tribe these days," Ory says.

"They want to know about their MP's record. People have been asking, 'What's my MP doing about this? Where's the money for the Constituency Development Fund?'"

And slowly, the MPs themselves have started joining in, emailing in to correct their profiles, answering constituents' questions and joining in the online debate.

"If you are a citizen who wants to change something, we've proved that there are lots of tools out there - the internet, the free software - to give you the power to do that," Ory says.

"Our ultimate hope is that we will encourage other people to express their frustration. Not necessarily through this website. But maybe Mzalendo will inspire them to do other things."

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