Spirits of Africa, A personal experience of giving and receiving in the social media age

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Mama Africa

Last year I wrote an essay for Schreef, the magazine of the Dutch Foundation for Literature where I am on the advisory board, about new business models for writers. This article sparked a journey that reached a new highpoint last night and which, to some extend, serves as a personal poster child for the value of giving and receiving in the social media age, as well as how this can be more beneficial to anyone involved than traditional models. Plus, the story contains buzzwords such as crowdfunding and spiritual heritage.

After the publication of the essay I was approached by Ton van der Lee, a well-known Dutch author with a big heart for Africa. Not too long ago, Ton started making documentaries about the disappearing spiritual heritage of Africa. Selflessly, as I later discovered Ton to be in most aspects of life, he decided to put these documentaries online for free, without any intention of financial gain.

On a nice spring day in Amsterdam a pigeon committed suicide by flying into the back wheel of my bike and I met Ton in a café in the city centre. We talked about the nature of sharing online and business models based on trust and reciprocity rather than profit margins. After our meeting I prepared a simple document to help Ton navigate the online world and give him some suggestions as to how to reach more people with his documentaries.

Ton pays for the production of the documentaries out of his own pocket. On each of his journeys to Africa he invites some people to come along on a ‘pay what you can’ basis. As a well-respected writer and generally nice person, it seems Ton has no difficulties finding such sponsors to help him with his work. The offer, however, is exclusive as there are simply only that much people who can join (and going to Africa, no matter how friendly the offer, is not within everybody’s financial reach).

The obvious way to fund new documentaries, therefore, is crowdfunding. Relative to his fans and readers, Ton naturally creates a value surplus. A postcard or email from him is worth to the receiver than it costs him to produce it. Every creative person creates such value surpluses in relation to other people, which – when given away – can create a healthy value exchange where everybody wins and wins more than they could imagine. The crowdfunding campaign Ton launched a couple of months after our meeting was based on this model, where the funder received way more in return for a donation than was logically feasible. My 25 euros ‘bought’ me a postcard from Africa, a DVD with beautiful documentaries, countless friendly emails and an invitation to the premiere of the latest Spirits of Africa documentary: The Cave of Fertility.

Yesterday evening we went to the premiere, together with some 50 other people, in a wonderful Amsterdam canal house provided for the occasion by one of the main sponsors of the documentary. One look around the crowd showed everybody was delighted to be there. The documentary received the applause it deserved and the Q&A afterwards alone was worth cycling through an Amsterdam so cold that there was no threat of kamikaze pigeons. The reception, the warmth and the people there made me feel slightly guilty for my negligible contribution which didn’t even cover a cab fare to the airport.

The sangomas Ton interviews and follows in his documentaries give to and receive from the people they help what is appropriate for each individual. They have been doing so for ages. Apparently, it is a fair and sustainable system. To me, this is what the ‘social media revolution’ is about: creating fairer systems of value exchange. Some call that ‘social business’; but maybe ‘sane’ or ‘sustainable business’ is more appropriate.

Before, we used to say that if things sound too good to be true, they probably are. Nowadays, if things sound too good to be true, they might well be on their way to a crowdfunding success or social media hit (the financial sector excluded).

As for any new insight triggered by one person, I feel I’m heavily indebted to Ton van der Lee for showing me that although I might have written the original essay about new business models for writers, the ‘new’ might be business-as-usual for many people both in Africa and the Western world, which he understood all along.

Please like the Facebook page of Ton van der Lee and watch his videos on YouTube. Photo by Valentina Buj on Flickr.