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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
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.
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.
- the Kiswahili word for patriot - its sub-title is "Eye On
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.
The site breaks
new ground in the continent's political world - nothing else like
it exists even in more established democratic countries like South
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.
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.
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.
and freelance journalists started adding eyewitness accounts of
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.
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?'"
the MPs themselves have started joining in, emailing in to correct
their profiles, answering constituents' questions and joining in
the online debate.
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.
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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