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.
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.