The exclusion of Africa

It’s raining today.  Not normal Obruni rain, but Ghana rain.  Even after years in Nevada I never saw anything like this (although Nevada did have more lightning).  And I gather this isn’t the exception, this is the rule, since of the 4 or 5 times it’s rained since we’ve been here it’s always been some flavor of “biblical downpour.”

I asked Miranda to grab the H4N and make a recording of the rain, so you could hear.  This is taken from inside our room, and it’s the sound of the rain outside.  It’s really hard to convey how loud this is, especially since the audio doesn’t even sound like that many people will perceive as precipitation, but it is both loud and actual rain, I assure you.

[Cape Coast rain]

So we’re spending the day inside.  Miranda and I are both sick still, although with different things.  I have perhaps played too fast and loose with my willingness to eat at street vendors (or consume massive quantities of palm oil) after being chided by Dom and Miranda for my caution and whatever the cause (probably bacterial) it has finally caught up with my intestinal system.  I’m actually surprised it took me this long to get sick, hah.  If it doesn’t pass by tomorrow I will seek some rehydration salts and Cipro from the chemist Dom introduced us to (Hondal Pharmacy between Kotokoraba and Tantri, in case anyone else travels to Cape and needs a good pharmacy).

I’ve also been drinking “sachet water” (which is the bagged water they sell on the street).  The bags say .5ML (although it is closer to .4) and often but not always say “filtered” or “uv treated.”  For a while we were treating these with UV ourselves, but stopped doing so more than a week ago, so far with no problems.  However, since everytime you buy these they seem to be a different brand (see previous posts containing Obama Water and Potential Drinking Water) it’s hard to say how consistent the quality is.  Hondal sells a double uv-treated version they have bagged for the pharmacy, but they don’t sell it cold (that I know of), which is the appeal of sachet water for me — you can buy normal sachet water for 5 Peshawas right out of a cooler from any number of vendors on the street.  That means that your water might be reasonably cool when you drink it, and for me drinking cool water is one of the few comforts of Obruni life that I’d prefer to retain.  I think I’m going to go back to steripen’ing the water, since it’s such a minor imposition and rules out the possibility of future bacteriological or parasitic problems.

So since I am sitting around today, I wanted to try and collect some of my thoughts on Africa and our experiences here so far.  Much of what we have encountered I already was prepared for, and I really do feel as if Ghana is the vanilla of Africa — which is to say it’s a good “Africa for beginners” as Dom might put it.  The problems of “Africa” exist here but aren’t as pronounced as elsewhere.

Of certain things I was prepared for, I have noticed that they are either more or less marked than I readied myself to encounter.  I knew Internet would be slow here, but I also knew that there were a few fiber cables making landing in Accra (here’s one map from The Guardian, and another showing no less than 14,000 Gigabits of connectivity to Accra!) and I suspected that for $100/month or $150/month or something along these lines a person could obtain “US ADSL” quality bandwidth (which I’ll say is better than 1Megabit down/up) in Accra.  What I have been astounded to find is the degree to which Africa is being excluded from the rest of the world.

Let me expand a bit on what I mean here.  Firstly, the DSL I had thought might exist, well, it doesn’t.  Internet cafes have 384Kbit connections or something along these lines and you must pay $1CEDI an hour to use them.  Even so, it’s spotty.  Plenty of times I wouldn’t even be able to load gmail or googlemaps or whatever — just because some infrastructure “exists” in Africa doesn’t mean you actually have access.  Your Internet cafe might “have” 384Kbit ‘net, your hotel might “have” electricity and running water, but if you are counting on checking your facebook, taking a shower, and charging your digital camera, well, good luck.  So basically the high end that I thought existed, well, it doesn’t.

So for us bourgeoisie, what is there?  Well, there’s a 3G (HSDPA) modem (USB stick) that is $60CEDI for 500MB of xfer (which disappears if not used after a month).  It realistically gives about dialup speeds (56K, maybe double that) with consistency, when it actually works.  Most days I cannot load Slashdot, cannot load The New York Times, and so on.  So, even though the best Internet access I could buy costs as much as the average Ghanaian makes in a month, even though I actually did buy that, I am unable to read the NYT.  And although the ‘net here costs the equivalent of an average Ghanaian salary, that doesn’t seem so bad considering it could be 30 times that salary if I were in Central Africa Republic.

For those of you who aren’t tech-savvy, what does 500MB for $60CEDI really mean?  It means I spent $40USD for basically the equivalent of 5 album downloads, or maybe watching 50 YouTube videos.  Basically watching two or three videos on YouTube would cost most Ghanaians their day’s wage.  And of course that assumed they have a laptop, know how to use it, and so forth.

This might seem like a pretty privileged complaint to make; oh poor me, I cannot read The New York Times or watch YouTube.  But this is a problem.  I’m trying to read articles about the Millenium Development Goal summit @ the UN in NY and I find myself having to e-mail people I know in the states and have them copy/paste the text to me so I can stay abreast.  If you’re a typical African this structure of information access means that essentially you have no access: you are being excluded.  What the rest of the world is doing, you won’t be privy to, won’t participate in.

And even if I can load a site like NYT, these sites are often very flash and video heavy.  Forget about Youtube.  So even though the UN has a summit page with video clips, there is zero chance I can watch them.  Watching one or two short youtube videos uses my entire day’s bandwidth allotment.  Did the world survive before Youtube?  Sure.  The world survived before we had clothes too, but when the rest of the world is wearing clothes and you aren’t it gets hard to compete.

The number of patent filings originating from African inventors is so statistically insiginificant that most times I’ve seen it on charts the entire continent is listed as “0.0%” along side the US and Europe and Asia which all generally have between 28 and 36% of the new filings.  Africa is being left behind, and to see this is troubling to me.  Yes, I knew that the average primary school here wasn’t running multi-core Intel computers with flatscreens, but I’m not talking about even primary schools.  Dom was telling me last night about a friend of his who is a research assistant at one of the largest univerisities here and their research department was without Internet for a month.  A month.  At a large university.  Worse yet, she (the research assistant) didn’t see this as a big problem.

So I guess for me the frustration is the extent of exclusion, since I see this as unequivocally a form of structural violence.  MDG 8 includes access to technologies (cellular telephony, personal computer usage and such), but access to technology really affects nearly all of the Millenium Development Goals.  Childhood access to inexpensive laptops loaded with opensource software and knowledge (such as Wikipedia) and mesh Internet access is a key part of universal primary education, in my opinion.  I’ll talk later (maybe with some help from Dom) about how “education” takes place in Africa, but in short it needs some serious fixing, and I think freedom of information is a big part of this.

Internet access also greatly helps any of the health-related development goals as there are not doctors everywhere, but with Internet access it is possible to get remote consultation and access to skills and knowledge that are not immediately available.  Surgeons in the States are using telepresence to even remotely perform surgey (the first transatlantic surgery took place in 2001!) yet even running a webcam here in a city of 100,000 people is nigh possible.

It’s hard to prioritize these things — would I rather see free inoculations for kids, or free Linux laptops?  If I had to choose, I would obviously go for the inoculations, but I think the point is that we shouldn’t have to make that choice.  Public health successes have shown again and again that without looking at the whole picture you cannot expect the most positive and lasting outcomes.  Giving tuberculosis patients medication is critical, but without ensuring they are well fed, able to rest sufficiently, and so forth, their outcomes will be far less positive.  Often this sort of holistic approach yields great returns for minor extra efforts.  So I am asking, when there are already fiber optic cable drops just miles from me, why can I not read The New York Times?

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