Africans With iPods?

I recently exchanged emails with a young Columbia graduate who has offered to volunteer his tech support skills at Maru a Pula for a year. This is a generous and well-timed gift to a school attempting to accelerate its uses of academic technology. However, this person was “shocked” to hear that we would consider Macintosh computers, an intranet web site, and Linux on the desktop for a school in Africa. He had been told to accept a “vow of poverty” for his year in the bush and could not reconcile that with the acquisition of current technology at the school.

African with iPod. What?
MAP student with iPod. What?

Why do people have a hard time including iPods and cellphones into their vision of Africa? Is it that they wish to subscribe to a simplistic understanding of life in a developing country? In almost any country, a certain proportion of the population can access modern goods from developed nations. In the mid 90’s, the Botswana Ministry of Education installed Macintosh computer labs with educational multimedia software in all government secondary schools. Cellphones are far easier to acquire than a new land line, and cellular signals travel well across the desert terrain.

It seems that benevolent paternalism is at work here. It sounds great that some westerners (not enough, for sure) care for Africa and its people. But how much do they understand Africans and respect them as equals? If you see an African as your equal, then why would you be surprised to find him sporting an iPod? Surely one realizes that global markets can reach Botswana. Then it would be the African’s fault that she could not afford an iPod.

Botswana is more technologically advanced than many of her neighbors, such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. However, South Africa is a technology leader on the continent, and even economically isolated Zimbabweans can become high-end digital video editors. Africans are more similar to us than different.

3 comments

  1. Ben Casnocha says:

    I don’t blame people for thinking most Africans don’t have iPods (this is in fact probably true). After all, we read in the news about wars, hunger, genocide, etc. There’s no room for iPods in all this!

    A slightly different argument, and more persusasive, is that the western tendency to lump all African countries and cities as "Africa" is irresponsible. Clearly some cities and countries are more advanced than others. Just like you wouldn’t judge all Americans by the lifestyle of people in a certain region, we shouldn’t do the same about a whole continent.

  2. rkassissieh says:

    I like your second point. Africa’s many countries span a wide range of wealth, religions, and values. With your first point, you have turned my argument inside-out, into something I did not say. Sure, fewer Africans than Americans have iPods. However, you would be surprised at the number of TVs out there! The TV antenna mounted on a tin shack is a common feature in southern African countries. But it is alarming how many people are surprised to see the quick spread of cellphones and the presence of iPods at all there.

  3. Jaya says:

    I can repeat your question, "but how much do they understand Africans and respect them as equals?", and I think it is very important for everyone to be considered equal as humans. I feel it doesn’t require everyone to have latest gadgets, and finally it may not be that important anymore.