When Data, Youth, and Art Collide

A recent conversation with a leading community artists in Tanzania reminds us how data can play a surprising role in uniting different groups around common goals.

Members of Mkubwa na Wanawe, a leading local artist and advocacy group, chat with the Data Zetu team.

Sunday afternoon started with a room full of 14 young leaders and popular local artists, half women and half men. Before then, we had never discussed together about how local communities engage with data, so we did not know what to expect. We had different backgrounds, but we knew we shared something in common, something that unites young people from all walks of life, and that was our passion for what we do.

That’s certainly the case for Tanzania Bora Initiative (TBI), a youth-led organization that uses media, arts and technologies to engage young men and women. Three of us are artists, so we were excited to host a similarly passionate organization, called Mkubwa na Wanawe, a leading local artists’ community from Temeke District in Dar es Salaam. Mkubwa na Wanawe mentors more than 100 artists ranging in the age of 15 to 22 — although they work with an actor as young as 4 years old as well as the country’s oldest popular musician, Bibi Cheka. The delegation was led by a popular artist and mentor, Said Fella, and accompanied by a team of five amazing and well-celebrated local artists.

Our goal for the afternoon was to begin a conversation about Data Zetu and the impact the project promises to bring by helping community members to engage with data. But for a group of artists and youth advocates, this was not that easy; after all, “data” is not something we work with every day. At times, we thought we were losing one another. But before long, we came to intersect with each other. Ironically, this happened when we stopped talking about data and realized that, at the end of the day, we were talking about the same fundamental issues — issues about which we were all equally concerned.

For example, we all struggle with addressing issues like unemployment. One of the country’s leading hip-hop artists, Mheshimiwa Temba, expressed passionately how the situation is getting more dangerous in his community, and how young girls are in danger when they work around the port area. He also stressed that there are a lot of health clinics that are not in use, and that there are a lot of students dropping -out of school. Efforts to connect with the government, our guests added, stumble because we are not always equipped with the tools we need to advocate for support for our community initiatives that seek to tackle these prevailing challenges.

Data is a field not to be feared, because it offers the information and evidence that we need to support our work.

That was when data conversation started. We realized together that data is a field not to be feared, because it offers the information and evidence that we need to support our work. Data is not only found in numbers and figures, for use by researchers and statisticians. Data is something can arm us with the tools we need to amplify our voices and our initiatives.

The question, then, was simple: How do we find and share existing data and use it to do our job better, to write more compelling songs and dramas, to promote more meaningful dialogues, and to represent and become better ambassadors of young people? How can we have correct information to convince leaders as well as our peers to make better decisions in our community?

These questions are the foundation of the Data Zetu program. Over the next several months, we will embark on a series of “listening campaigns”, where we’ll speak with communities about the challenges they face. Then, much like our discussion with Mkubwa na Wanawe, we’ll begin exploring how data can help tackle these problems to improve governance and communities. Our Sunday afternoon conversation was just the beginning, but it already showed us how data can play a surprising role in uniting different groups around common goals.