Wikipedia, laptops leap their way into rural Africa

He must have broken protocol, but the guide named Leopard who showed us around the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in Botswana unlocked the padlock and pushed open the door. Leopard lived in one of the several company-owned one-room houses for a major portion of the year. The room was just wide enough to accommodate a double bed. There was one window in the rear, and a photo of his wife taped to one wall.

Then I noticed the TV. The six-speaker home theater system and DVD player. The desktop computer, monitor and printer. Luckily the company that owned this campsite provided its employees — and not just the campsite — with electricity from a nearby diesel generator, at least during waking hours. Getting Internet out here was mostly unthinkable.

Leopard had risen in the ranks and tried the nine-to-five office job in nearby Maun, but he found the “bush” more satisfying and thus returned to his former life as a guide. This whole excursion began when I noticed the camcorder sitting in the seat opposite him on the Jeep we had been riding in. I didn’t think it belonged to any of the tourists, so I inquired about it. It turned out he had purchased the camera to film wildlife when he had the chance, but he could never edit the video he shot because he said his computer didn’t have the right connection. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind sending him the stuff he needed when I returned to the States. I obliged a month later, sending him a FireWire adapter and cable, a stick of memory and some software so that he wouldn’t have to “put the thing in [his] pickup truck and drive it five hours to Maun to re-install Windows when it gets messed up.” I guess reinstalling Windows in Africa really would be even more of a pain than doing it here in the U.S.

I never heard back from Leopard, but I hope he can now produce DVDs to his heart’s content.

When an American visits an auto show, the fact that every other visitor is waving around a video camera can become quite annoying. Maybe I’m wrong, but I imagine that was the only video camera owned by a local resident for miles around. The marginal benefit that one uncommon piece of technology can have when no others are around must be immense.

That’s the principal reason I haven’t quite lost faith in the spring break trip I’m going on. We will be delivering thirteen laptops to rural Ghana, setting up a computer lab there. The laptops were originally destined for an elementary school, but it was impossible to furnish the building with electricity before our arrival. Now the laptops are destined for a community center, where I hope they will prove useful to more than just middle school students.

But what can computers really do for Africa’s less wealthy populations? Even in our own cushy, academic, States-side lives, computers often seem to get in the way of learning — or at least schoolwork — as much as they prove to be a help. Despite the plethora of academic programs I installed on these machines, I imagine one use will trump all others, providing that same vast jump in usefulness as Leopard’s camcorder: Wikipedia. We will be bringing a DVD-sized copy of Wikipedia with us for local access, as cellular Internet connectivity may not be quite up to snuff for all 13 users to have responsive, simultaneous, online access.

Perhaps the dozens of textbooks downloaded in PDF format will be of most use for those trying to educate themselves. Maybe residents will communicate with distant relatives on their newly-acquired and free Gmail account. Or maybe people will simply wile away the hours playing the Mario Cart-style racing game I installed. At least it’s more fun than solitaire.

I don’t have a tremendous amount of faith in the immediate utility of this lab. Even in this country, educational software rarely meets expectations. I imagine the schoolteachers who bring students to the lab will become quickly frustrated by the fact that educational software simply doesn’t work as well as its counterparts in other fields. Perhaps one cannot compare educational software to architectural design or finance software.

But Africa has demonstrated the “leapfrog effect” before, most notably in its adoption of mobile phones even before landlines. With luck, maybe someday a collaborative network of dedicated programmers in third-world countries will build software that can actually help alleviate the ever-unsatisfied need for textbooks and teachers, carrying out an equally significant “leap.”

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears on Wednesdays.

Comments

  • African

    AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY! Speaking of a rural Africa is just absurd
    - an African from Africa City, Africa

  • blueful123

    This needs to be reversed!