In the dawn of 2013, the year that would sadly end without the live presence of that magnanimous and charismatic son of the soil, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, he who had ‘walked along the road of heroes and the heroines’, the same one who for decades had ‘borne the pain of those who have known fear and learnt to conquer it’, a dear friend of mine, Seitiso Ntlothebe founded a blog. The blog, aptly titled Native Dialogues, served for years as a platform where the problem child honed his writing skills, ideas and thoughts. The motto for Native Dialogues was equally captive: Africa tell your stories. Coincidentally Ntlothebe is also a contributing writer on this platform.
During the first semester of this year, Ntlothebe, having spent years finetuning his skills as a non-fiction writer, writing for various publications, began to dabble with fiction which he published on his blog. It was during this period that he had an idea to build a platform where ‘children of this continent – Africa – can share their stories without fear of being censored, hence the motto: Africa Tell Your Stories.’ Thus, Native Dialogues – a digital repository for African literature – was born. The site was officially launched on Wednesday, 10 May 2017 and in its short seven months of existence the platform continues to organically grow against all odds.
In a founding note published on Native Dialogues, in his customary acerbic tone, Ntlothebe describes the circumstances and reasons that led to the conversion of his blog into a communal literary platform: ‘The decision to convert Native Dialogues from a one-man blog into a communal magazine… was informed by a lot of considerations, ideas and even negative events which with the benefit of hindsight I appreciate. From being told that my style is too radical, too salty and spicy for the sensitive tongue to appreciate, and to being informed by an editor from a certain national newspaper that my writing does not align with their ‘news agenda’’.
Elaborating further on the founding reasons of what he calls a magazine, he writes thus: ‘This magazine was created with a single goal in mind: to provide a digital platform whereby the children of this continent – Africa – can share their stories without fear of being censored, hence the motto: Africa Tell Your Stories. This platform has been specially built for any African child within or without the continent to freely express their voice, share their ideas with no sense of trepidation and write their own stories without fear of being gagged. African child, Native Dialogues was created with you in mind, it is yours – make use of it.’
Ntlothebe also had a message for potential readers of Native Dialogues – one part of the important tandem of stakeholders alongside writers. He says: ‘To the readers: Native Dialogues intends to offer you quality content, the sort of thought-provoking writing that you can relate to and make sense of. The success and growth of this magazine is as much reliant on writers as it is on you. It is my hope and that of my co-founders that Native Dialogues becomes a strong fabric of your being, a repository for fresh ideas and knowledge as well as a source of inspiration and empowerment.’
As to whether as co-founders of Native Dialogues – myself and my business partners – alongside Seitiso Ntlothebe – the original founder – have fulfilled the declaration Ntlothebe makes above is for the public to judge. But if you would permit me, dear reader, to be subjective and therefore biased, I would say with pride that in the short life of Native Dialogues as a platform open to the African masses within or without the continent, we have done our very best to position the site as a digital repository for African literature with the little we had. Native Dialogues is yet to publish writers from all corners of the continent. That needs to change, pronto. Funds are scarce and therefore resources to help grow the site are limited, yet we remain driven and determined as ever. As of the beginning of this month – November 2017 – we have received submissions for short stories from various writers in South Africa. This is a sign that writers are responding to the platform, despite zero marketing, and are beginning to appreciate the importance of a unique site such as Native Dialogues. The traffic on the website is not as high as one would like but the numbers are slowly but certainly picking up.
A few weeks ago, I happened on a blogging piece written by Serene Chen which I found enlightening and encouraging. In the piece, published on Medium, Chen observes thus about Reddit: ‘No one wants to use a silent forum.’ Reddit, a social news aggregation website, was founded twelve years ago by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. The latter founder recently said I do to that tennis powerhouse and the People’s Queen Serena Williams.
Chen writes that after creating Reddit, Huffman and Ohanian were faced with a problem of content, hence that critical saying: No one wants to use a silent forum. When people visit any site on the Internet and it looks like there is no one home, they are less likely to engage or take it seriously. To solve this problem, the two founders came with a not so honourable plan that was nonetheless effective. ‘Reddit turned this big issue into a non-issue by making tons of fake accounts and using them to interact with each other…It was a straightforward way of solving the chicken and egg, or in this case user and content problem’, says Serene Chen. As Chen informs us, according to Steve Huffman it would take months before people started using the site; and ‘for the homepage of Reddit to be filled by organically generated content.’ The idea to create fake accounts to make the site appear alive and busy might seem disingenuous but one cannot take away from its effectiveness.
In the case of Native Dialogues, we did not have the luxury of being creative as Huffman and Ohanian were during their startup days. The first problem is that myself and my partners are not gifted with a pen; now imagine writing fiction – the most difficult of literary devices. Therefore, it fell upon Ntlothebe once again to blow life into the platform, or hold the fort if so to speak, while the rest of us ran around to promote the site to scribes and readers respectively; the former who remain as rare as a black astronaut, even though we have been told on many occasions that South Africa is teeming with talented writers. It might be that they did not trust our high-minded preaching about this website that is meant to make publishing and reaching a global audience easy and immediate.
However, we understand as any startup founder should, that these things take a while. The important thing is to stay on course. Even the mighty YouTube was once an empty shell where months would pass without anyone uploading videos except its founders, a discouraging moment in the company’s history. In an article published in The New Yorker, John Seabrook gives us a glimpse of YouTube’s early days: ‘The situation looked bleak. In a video shot that month in a garage, the founders discuss their predicament. Chen says, “I was getting pretty depressed toward the end of last week.” Someone says, “This is lame.” The founders decided that videos of good-looking babes might help, and they placed ads on Craigslist, offering attractive women a hundred dollars for ten videos. No one responded.’
It is of course still early days for Native Dialogues, but there is hope. In dribs and drabs, writers are voluntarily submitting their work to the site; and this is because during that period when there was no one from outside contributing content, the platform was never silent. Pula!