Ifrikia Kengué, revolutionising media in Congo
Repression, sexism, tradition…you name it, she defies it. Nothing stops Ifrikia Kengué from being what she loves: a journalist. For this young woman born and raised in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville), life is a succession of challenges. But her passion, determination and courage led her to become a pioneer in multimedia production.
In August 2014, aged 28, Ifrikia launched Ifrikia Mag, an online magazine created with an original concept. All the content is recorded with a smartphone. Ifrikia produces all the editorial content herself and gives a voice to the people who make positive contributions to Africa.
“I am interested in telling stories, in shining a spotlight on people, to portray this Africa that people might not know of” she tells NADJA over a WhatsApp interview. Tired of the negative stereotypes that define the African continent in mainstream media, she aims to “give a different version, to bring a different perspective on [African] people.”
Ifrikia Mag covers a wide range of topics. From the success of a Senegalese restaurant owner to the perseverance of a student from Burkina Faso and the story of one of the best Ivorian female bloggers, to name just a few. All her articles celebrate the talents, diversity and richness of the African continent.
Ifrikia is a journalist at heart: “I feed on people’s stories. The individuals I meet are true lessons in life. It’s my raison d’être and what I am really interested in.”
After graduating in Journalism and Communication Sciences, Ifrikia freelanced and wrote for different magazines, including Pan-African weekly news magazine JeuneAfrique.com.
But Ifrikia wasn’t interested in news coverage. And her longing for editorial freedom and her desire to develop something new led her to create Ifrikia Mag.
The same year, Ifrikia founded a communications company to share her expertise. She hopes to pave the way for others to produce their own projects.
“I intend to train people in this form of nomadic journalism. We have developed a kit to produce Ifrikia Mag’s content: a smartphone, a monopod, a pole and a microphone. The idea is to produce on the spot.”
This is a way to facilitate productions ‘made in Africa’. “We’re constantly told that there is no homemade content,” she says. “The idea is for people to draw inspiration from it, that they too do something different, and start producing their own content and stop waiting and believing that others will do it for us.”
But in Congo-Brazzaville her projects are difficult to comprehend. The Congolese are traditionally newspaper readers. With a population of less than five million, the Republic of Congo has more than 50 known newspapers, a fairly large number of publications. And according to Ifrikia, most online magazines are just the digital version of newspapers.
“People in Africa are mostly familiar with the print media,” she tells us. “I want to show people this new way of writing. We can ‘write multimedia’, we can write differently.”
To convert newspaper readers to multimedia journalism is a huge challenge. “It’s extremely frustrating. People don’t understand, they don’t see the appeal of it.”
But that’s only one of the many obstacles Ifrikia faces. Journalists in Congo-Brazzaville have to struggle everyday with threats, self-censorship and fears of being arrested.
Media: More freedoms, more control
After gaining independence from France in 1960, a number of military coups and two civil wars in 1993 and 1997, the Republic of Congo engaged in a national dialogue to achieve peace. As a result, the first post-conflict constitution was adopted by referendum on 20th January 2002 and granted citizens a wide range of freedoms, including the freedom of expression, information and media.
It guaranteed “the right to seek, receive, and spread information and ideas by any means of expression” and that “no one can be disturbed for his/her ideas and opinions.” The constitution also prohibited censorship.
A 2001 law made the Republic of Congo one of the first African countries to decriminalise libel, although you can still be arrested for promoting racism and violence.
Those rights and freedoms are maintained in the new Constitution of 2016. However there is a gap between the legal guarantees and reality. Freedom of the press is in fact restricted, and many journalists practice self-censorship to stay out of trouble.
Ifrikia started her career writing about culture as a way to stay politically independent. Fashionistas and musicians are among the people she wrote about. “Writing about culture and society frees you from the political environment where you must pledge allegiance to a particular politician and personally, I wasn’t interested in doing that.”
But the situation worsened over time and a year ago Ifrikia fled the country. “The environment in Congo was becoming so oppressive,” she explains.” It became complicated to work with serenity without being affiliated to someone. Presently, there are political prisoners and journalists who are in jail.”
In 2014, with the growing use of smartphones, Ifrikia wanted to set up a project. Young people would use their phones to share stories about the ethnic divisions in southern Congo, with the aim of discussing tribalism. But the project was considered subversive. And as her influence on social media grew, so did the concern for her safety, ultimately prompting Ifrikia to move to Burkina Faso.
“I know I will not survive in Congo. The current climate is terrible, kidnappings happen every day. I am an influencer on social media and we relay a lot of information. I’ve received threats. I am a woman. I am vulnerable. They can easily hurt me. I saw things but I couldn’t say anything because of the prevailing situation, because I had to protect myself. I said to myself that I couldn’t stay there anymore.”
Women in media
“The media sector is a very chauvinist field,” Ifrikia tells us. “When you’re a woman, if you’re not strong-headed you’re reduced to your gender.” She gives us the example of a male journalist who refused to work with her only for fear of falling in love.
Ifrikia explains that, in Congo, the success of women in media is mainly linked to their husband’s name and social status.
“They are promoted because of their husbands. There are a few women who succeed by themselves but it’s a very small number. It’s rather the spouses who use their influence and who push their wives upward. Their husbands’ name is an asset. When you’re not Mrs so and so you are of no importance and no-one supports you. It’s very endemic in Africa.”
In this sexist world and with no male sponsor, it would be natural to turn towards other women for support. But successful women won’t help either.
“More often than not, there is a lack of solidarity among women. There is a tendency to want to shine the light on oneself even though the more women are in the spotlight, the better it is for all of us, for our voice.”
The problem, according to Ifrikia, comes from education.
“From an early age we are taught to compete. We have to please, and have to compete in order to please men. Our sexist society has taught us to be in conflict with other women. There isn’t much compassion among us. Personally, I want to look at women positively.”
For Ifrikia, strength lies in unity and not competition. Only by standing together women will be able to communicate their problems and address them. Teamwork is the key. But that’s yet another brick wall she hits. Every time she tries to help another woman, the reaction she gets is doubt and mistrust. “They think that’s not the right way to be, that we are supposed to compete against each other. But there is no need for competition, on the contrary. The more there is of us, the better.”
Ifrikia is a firm believer in the necessity of enhancing women’s visibility in media and having their voices heard.
“As a woman, we really have something to contribute and the world needs this perspective, this outlook. It may seem a bit simplistic but I do believe that a woman’s view on the world and on her surroundings is interesting. It’s different. It’s a different way of writing, a different vision, and as we’re building this world we do need to listen more to this significant portion of the population which is often silent.”
For her feminist reasoning, Ifrikia has her dad to thank.
“My education, I owe it to my dad. He used to say to my mom, when she wanted me to wash dishes or do some house chores: “let her be, she will not be a housewife!””
Her father gave Ifrikia the most powerful advice a dad could give his daughter. “Your brain is asexual. Stop thinking that you’re a woman and that you should expect everything from a man.”
And that’s how it all started.