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The weDub Project is a locally developed DIY audio mixer and preamplifier that fits in the palm of your hand. Created in the urban slum of Kamwokya in Uganda, the circuit is made by youths to perform live improvisations of reinterpreted media to a participatory audience. In Uganda, this lively performance is a cultural media phenomenon known as VJing, or video jockeying. Inspired by this phenomenon, weDub is a community platform for youth voices and became an entry point for learning and making electronics. The project is designed from a position of abundance—it leverages existing youth talent and resources to foster youth engagement through the making of technology.
In makeshift shacks all over Kampala, Ugandans consume media through the lens of a VJ who is energetically cutting in and out of a movie and performing interpretations over a microphone in the local language while the audience watches the movie on a TV screen. For Ugandans, the movie isn't about Brad Pitt's performance— it's about the VJ's localized reinterpretation and style.
The skill of VJing lies in the ability to quickly analyze foreign media and relate it to the local context of Kampala in real time. When a VJ performs, it is highly collaborative; he would repeatedly call out to the audience and the audience will chant back in unison.
VJing is a profession limited to a few wealthy businessmen who have built enough capital to buy a suite of electronic equipment. The weDub Project makes the technology behind the craft accessible.
weDub is supported by a core group of male teenagers that frequent a local youth center called TLC (Treasure Life Youth Centre) in the slum area of Kamwokya. During the development of the project, Pius, Venas, Bashir, and Shafic were reluctantly pulled from school because of family economic hardship; their younger siblings were kept in school in their stead. Despite this, these youths have taught each other and made multiple circuits collaboratively.
What weDub values is a hands-on approach towards sourcing local electronic components to make instead of consume technology. The circuit is made to break—
to be reinvented, remade, and repaired. Because of its perishable nature, it compels the maker to constantly innovate and learn by doing. One of the project's main strengths is the platform's built-in necessity for constant regeneration. weDub relies heavily on its community members to develop shared, and even specialized, knowledge.
The project presents platforms, or opportunities for youth to: learn basic electronics through making,perform their knowledge through live performances of media analysis, engage in peer-to-peer mentoring by facilitating tech workshops, and build a network of community contacts for support.
These opportunities are developed from designing the project from a position of abundance— or discovering points of potential that exist in the community, and then amplifying them into opportunities to continuously generate growth. By tapping into existing resources and teen talent in the community, design can carve out spaces for projects involving technology to cultivate knowledge-building practices for development.
Special thanks to all those who have helped make this project successful: Pius Kadapao, Sherali Bhiwani, Venas Mulunda, Bashir Mwanje, Shafic Gaira, Sharma Pike, Arafat Sekyanzi, Peter Ntisenbe , TLC Youth Center, ACCD MDP Faculty, Anne Burdick, Elizabeth Chin, Sean Donahue, Anna Mayer and Jemima Wyman of CamLab, Tim Schwartz, Elise Co, Chris Fabian from UNICEF Innovation Unit, UNICEF Innovation Unit in Kampala, Uganda, and Mariana Amatullo from ACCD designmatters.
The weDub Project tells a different story.
If you do a simple Google image search with the key words 'youth in African slum' you will most likely be served up a single, dangerous, and problematic narrative painted negatively. The weDub Project challenges this narrative.
This project is driven by a group of teenagers deciding not to passively consume technology, but to be active makers of it. This latent unmet need is the driving force behind the alternative narrative composed collaboratively by the teens when they invested themselves into contributing to the platforms and opportunities emerging from the project.
Through ethnographical fieldwork, my investigations sought to fight this grand narrative of Africa in which anthropologist James Ferguson explains as ever pervasive in Global Shadows: A Neoliberal Africa. He states that the perception of "Africa" from foreigners is consistently characterized by lacks and failures in the global political economy.
As a designer studying at Art Center College of Design's Media Design Practices/Field (MDP), I developed the project over a course of 3 months from on-the-ground research and design to tell a different story. In between trips to Kampala, I utilized time in the studio to reflect, fabricate, and write an academically researched thesis paper to ground my field experiences.
I was a part of the second cohort of the Field program, during which the program had a Memorandum of Understanding with UNICEF Innovation Unit. However, this did not guarantee a collaborative project with or for them. There was no design brief to begin with. I deliberately made the choice to not design for UNICEF. To truly innovate new design processes and create unexpectedly rich outcomes, I designed from an oblique angle. I chose to not identify a social issue and use design to solve it. This was an intentional choice that ran counter to dominant design for social change methodologies.
Instead, I developed an improvisational approach and mischievous attitude towards what is considered to be the status quo of dominant design. An improvisational design process can be productive when it positions itself first from an angle of discovering points of potential and opportunity that inherently exist in the community. Moreover, it invests in the existing local culture and teen talent to build platforms for making and interculturation. My orientation to technology is that it is merely a conduit for engagement, and not as a solution. It negates technology as needing to be sleek, unbreakable, and fetishized— much of the product landscape of technology for development operates on these principles.
If UNICEF's design ethos is to design for needs based on absences using technology, I set out to design with the abundances inherent in the community and view technology as merely the conduit for human engagement. The challenge was to identify latent opportunities underneath the surface to amplify in the community.
In the process of weDub's development, UNICEF hired me as a consultant for two weeks, seeing the value of my design process and approach. I was financially funded and I continued to develop weDub on the ground for another two weeks. Another iteration of the circuit was made and sustainability measures were taken, all the while consulting for the Tech4Dev team in Kampala on a project I paralleled my design with, The MobiStation: a militaristic Pelican box composed of technological products aimed towards passively communicating foreign educational content.
Not having a design brief was a major challenge on the onset, especially when in an entirely new cultural context. I quickly turned it into an advantage. Instead of asking the question, how can I help, I asked, what can I learn from people in a culturally different context? Instead of focusing on problems sprouting from negativity, what is a delightful human experience for Kampalans? I learned that the phenomenon had widespread social impact, in that it is an art form developed out of the slums of Kampala and is a source of national pride.
Through a series of designed ethnographic exercises and developing on-the-ground contacts, I came to learn more about the VJing phenomenon through working with a youth center mentor at TLC. While weDub is a team effort, the project thrives on a closer collaborative workflow that exists between myself and Pius Kadapao. During the many VJ performances and prototype testing, Pius has been instrumental in organizing and facilitating them with me. With his leadership and local knowledge of Kampala, the project has a strong foundation within the community in which it serves.
Just like the collaborative and improvisational flow of VJing, I tailored my design investigations and process in the same way. Through infusing attitudes of improvisation and mischief, I was able to break through Global North design principles, and discover vernacular design languages and principles. This grounded the project and rendered its design language more approachable and accessible to the audience it intended to connect to. An example of this is how weDub is encased; during one performance, I noticed a toy car built from empty juice boxes by a boy around age 6. When I encased the circuit in the iconic mango juice box, the youths laughed and told me how delightful it was in comparison to the militaristic and metal encased technology given to them by non-profits. The youths upcycled other local materials such as straws or banana leaves to encase theirs.
At the early stages of the project, the youths were actively performing during the evening at TLC using the circuit I had made. When I told the youths I had built the technology to VJ myself, they asked me to teach them how to make the device.
Though idea of having a tech workshop did cross my mind at one point, it was unappealing, because I thought it could possibly reinforce colonialist relationships that I painstakingly tried to avoid. I did not want to further emphasize power dynamic. However, their request represented the level of commitment to not only the project, but to each other. During two workshops, the youths learned basic electronic concepts in order to build the circuit.
During the first workshop, I was worried that I did not have enough breadboards and banana clips for the four youths to individually recreate the circuit. This turned out to be a fantastic failure, as the youths worked collaboratively to build a single circuit. Bashir would recreate the circuit using the breadboard and the banana clips as a reference model. Pius would strip the wire and connect them to the audio jack. Venas would solder. VJing is a collaborative effort amongst the youth; in making tech they were no different.
Near the end of my final stay in Kampala, I knew that I would have to step completely away from the project. Because of time and limited resources as a graduate student, I had been actively seeking answers to what sustainability meant for this project. The investment in time and energy made by the youths and in the community were shared. I was actively seeking someone who was could continue to mentor the youths in electronics. In the process, I designed a technical schematic for them for when they would need an electrician to answer more technologically advanced questions; I connected them with the electrician in town whom I sourced the components from. I also designed a visual schematic that would read more easily for a beginner.
In my work I have found that constantly working on the ground means that you are prepared to meet opportunity when it presents itself. There was a day in which I was testing an iteration of the circuit and it was left open without a casing. A young man walked up to me and asked what the circuit was made for. I learned that he grew up in Kamwokya and just finished courses in computer science and electronics. Sharma began leading the making workshops instead of me.
I balanced needs from multiple stakeholders: the youths at TLC Youth Center, UNICEF Innovation Unit in NYHQ, UNICEF Tec4Dev Innovation Team in Kampala, Art Center College of Design MDP/Field, and even my own graduate student goals. This was one of the best challenges of the project, because it ensured the project's academic, social, and design rigor. weDub had to be successful in a multitude of lenses to demonstrate impact: academic, community, design, and professional to name a few.
This project affirms the view that designers can spearhead a process that starts with designing from a place of local cultural abundance instead of absence. This is a paradigm shift for Global North designers. Put into practice, this effectively combats unintended neoliberalistic consequences in a postcolonial context.
The value of The weDub Project is that while there are precise learning outcomes for the youths in Kampala, it also invites for introspection on the home front as to how designing projects that utilize technology can be positioned and employed effectively and consciously in a postcolonial context. My hope is that the social impact of the project resonates both in Uganda and the States.
It builds on what is abundant in the community- local skills, as well as materials and electronics.
The story describes a change of design course that is evident of real openness to its context, which, as you can see, we've been very sensitive to.