I had planned, for almost a year, to be on-site at this event.
It all started in 2019 when the Indaba was held in Abuja, Nigeria and partly because I was still new to the movement and had no idea what it was about, I didn’t take the opportunity seriously. A few days later, while attending another event at the American embassy in Abuja, the facilitator asked the audience if anyone present was an active contributor to Wikipedia to which I indicated with a raise of the hand (only me in a hall of about 50 people) she proceeded to ask if I had attended the just concluded Indaba to which I responded in the negative. The look on her face was one of terrible disappointment. All the prior excitement disappeared from her eyes and was replaced with a fleeting sadness. I had no idea why at the time. But that wave of emotion struck me and I decided that whatever it was that happens at Indabas, I was going to make it a personal assignment to find out for myself.
COVID-19 happened in 2020 and 2021 was the year of the everything-online. I finally got my chance in 2022 and what you’ll find in the rest of this post is a summary of my experience, observations and suggestions.
I didn’t have a lot of them because I hadn’t been to any WikiIndaba. Also, all of the online documentation I came across of previous events weren’t very helpful with creating any meaningful expectations. Hence, I kept an open mind and expected a conference-like experience with its attendant seriousness and networking opportunities.
I had earlier submitted a presentation proposal and had received no response as at 3 days to the event. I also applied for a scholarship and received a regret mail. Honestly, I wasn’t very positive about getting one (only 40 scholars for the entire continent? Wow!) and had already booked my ticket and sorted out accommodation at an Airbnb in Kigali well ahead of time.
Kigali is beautiful. A truly beautiful African city. There is a view of greenery and mountains in almost every direction one turns to. My Airbnb in Kimhurura was about 10-15 minutes taxi from the Ubumwe Grande Hotel – the selected conference venue. I received a warm airport welcome and quickly made friends with Patty & Pauline. There is a lot more I want to write about Kigali and Rwanda, but this publication may not be best suited for such purposes.
Wikimedia Rwanda had such enthusiastic members on ground. I particularly appreciate how the leader kept acknowledging the efforts of all of his team members and co-volunteers. WISCom (WikiIndaba Steering Committee – my first time hearing about this group) made its presence very well noticed all through the conference duration. It’s hard to imagine how the event would’ve gone on smoothly without the experienced input of members of this group. Notable of mention is Bobby (Chief Priest, as he was fondly referred to), he was everywhere.
WISCom and the hosts wasted no time in ensuring that we moved from session to session seamlessly, live updates on social media channels, conference timetable updates etc were all happening almost at the same time.
Day 1,2,3 went by quite rapidly and there was a ton of learning and new experiences. However, I noticed that most people knew themselves from previous meetings and were very excited to reconnect, and that there were small pockets of others who didn’t seem to know or experience this palpable excitement. I soon found out that this latter group were the newcomers into the movement. Like me, this was their first Indaba experience but unlike me, they didn’t seem to have much experience with participating in Wikimedia themed events. One of them asked me what he could do to become like us. Strange question really because I didn’t consider myself to be a part of the ‘us’ group. I was emotionally moved and brought this to the attention of all the participants on day 3.
If we must present as an all-inclusive movement, then there is no better place to demonstrate this culture than at events like WikiIndaba and suchlike. Newcomers should be treated like brides in some African cultures – get all the attention they deserve, deliberately get offered help, given the opportunity to visibly participate.
Here’s a short list of suggestions:
- Name tags and identity markers to prevent clustering and easy identification by more experienced participants.
- Pairing newcomers with more experienced attendees for the conference duration.
- Encouraging first timers to make session contributions or ask questions.
- Slides and presentations should be designed for the comprehension of newbies. Avoid wiki jargon. etc
I believe these points will greatly improve newbies participation experience at WikiIndaba and similar events.
Another thing that stood out for me was the importance of in-person meetings and the role it plays in building and sustaining a movement like ours. It was great matching faces to names and usernames. It was such a beautiful experience. I expected some people with great online presence to look big, but it didn’t really turn out that way! It doesn’t matter how popular online events have become, I am fully convinced that it’ll never measure up to the effect of seeing, hugging and experiencing colleagues live and in real time.
In all, I had an exciting and fun filled conference and the only thing I wish I did differently was to have included an extra 2–3-day post conference stay to help me recover mentally and see the beautiful country of Rwanda proper as opposed to traveling at midnight of the final day of the conference.
I am now looking forward to future Wikimedia events with excitement. Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to share this experience with my erstwhile American embassy facilitator.
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