Culture is our Weapon

AfroReggae is a Brazilian NGO that empowers destitute youths through cultural empowerment.  The organization was founded in 1993, right after Rio de Janeiro police massacred twenty-one civilians in the Vigario Geral favela (the Portuguese equivalent of slum).  The founders of the organization recognized that young people in these favelas were given no cultural reference points aside from pervasive violence and the drug trade.  Because they are given no alternatives, many of these impoverished Brazilians become tied up in narcotrafficking gangs at a very early age and are unable to ever escape.  AfroReggae’s mission is to promote development by bringing culture to these people who have lost their culture.

The organization’s efforts have been a model of success, as its founders used their connections in the local favela communities, the Rio government, and even the narcotraffickers, to gradually expand AfroReggae’s operations to more of Rio’s impoverished favelas.  At a recent event in Washington D.C., Damien Platt, the author of a recently-published book about AfroReggae called Culture is our Weapon, detailed the full extent of AfroReggae’s efforts in Rio: several bands, five culture centers that offer classes, a samba group, an all-girl percussion group, a theater group, a dance and procussion group, a circus school, a TV program, a magazine, and two to three radio programs.  Damien first encountered AfroReggae while working for Amnesty International in Rio, and later worked as AfroReggae’s International Relations coordinator from 2006 to 2008.

The experience of AfroReggae shows that targeted cultural development programs, carefully tailored to the local environment, can have transformative effects on impoverished communities.  Clearly, AfroReggae’s efforts should be encouraged by the local government in Rio de Janeiro so that they can spread to the city’s other destitute favelas.  However, this organization’s successes raise the question of whether similar efforts can be undertaken elsewhere in Brazil.  For example, Brazil’s Tri-Border Areas, particularly the triple frontier with Paraguay and Argentina, have received considerable international attention in recent years, due to allegations that Middle Eastern terrorist groups have profited enormously from the illegal drug trade in these loosely-governed border areas.  Could Brazil improve its efforts to undermine the drug trade in the southern Tri-Border Area by promoting efforts similar to AfroReggae’s in Rio?

In his talk, Damien Platt highlighted that race relations have played an important role in AfroReggae’s success in Rio: not only are AfroReggae’s Afro-Brazilian clients socioeconomically marginalized, but they are also racially marginalized.   AfroReggae addresses both of these social problems, giving their favela clients specific Afro-Brazilian cultural reference points.  If similarly marginalized minorities exist in the Tri-Border Areas, Indian tribes and Middle Eastern immigrants for example, AfroReggae’s development model could be put to use elsewhere within Brazil.  AfroReggae’s development efforts in Rio have taken over a decade to grow their current stage, and fostering this kind of grassroots development in the Tri-Border Area will take time – all the more reason to get started soon.  If any of you know of any studies indicating whether this model could be successful in Brazil’s TBAs, please send it our way.


The rise of online gaming in the Middle East

In keeping with this week’s theme of video games in the Middle East, it has become hard to ignore the browser-based game Travian.  This game is a massive multiplayer game where the user plays as one of three factions of people: the Romans, the Gauls, and the Teutons. Over 5 million people play Travian throughout the world, but the statistic that makes this game remarkable is that 27% of these people are from Saudi Arabia.  This is quite a significant statistic considering a college student in Germany developed the game.  More surprising is that the game’s popularity in Saudi Arabia is not an anomaly. According to the web tracker Alexa, Travian is the 7th-most popular site in Iran, 9th-most in Libya, 11th-most in Kuwait, and 12th-most in Palestine, and 25th in Iraq.  To put this in perspective, Travian is the 5113th most popular site in the United States.

This begs the question how a game becomes so popular. One reason is the hardware required to play Travian is very minimal. If a computer has Internet access and can run java, then its user can play Travian.  Because no hardware needs to be installed, the user can play it on public, work, or personal computers with equal ease.  The developers have also created a mobile version where a gamer can play from an Internet-enabled cell phone, further increasing the accessibility of the game.

But why is this site so popular in the Middle East? Unfortunately, not much has been written about Travian’s expansion in the Middle East.  The National, a newspaper run by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, published an article comparing Travian to Chess (a game that originated in the Middle East): “Every individual move is simple, a child can do it. But to understand the whole picture and play against a master will take months or years of practice.”  However, the National fails to understand that the key to being successful in Travian is the ability to build a strong network with other users to reach the goal of endgame.

Nearly all social networking sites facilitate interactions between people, and massive multiplayer games can often act as social networks.  From an intelligence-gathering standpoint, the high degree of anonymity inherent in online games could allow intelligence gatherers to more easily gain access to networks of young Muslims who happen to be playing these online games.