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Quick notes from the Continent

More quick notes from my favorite continent:

– Can’t place Bangui on a map? It’s okay – so little is written about the Central African Republic that even top African journalists admit they don’t know much about the landlocked nation, inconveniently located (as you might have guessed) in Central Africa. Gitau Warigi, who writes for the Sunday Nation (one of Nairobi’s leading newspapers), had the chance to visit Bangui while reporting on a planning meeting for an upcoming summit in Nairobi. He came back with a fascinating tale about a nation with a turbulent history, few ties to the rest of the world, and the possibility of being in the news if the Sudan/Chad conflict heats up. It’s very much worth the Nation’s free registration so you can read the whole story. A taste of his excellent writing:

Prominently displayed within the lobby of the Hotel d’Centre in Bangui is a photomontage of Gen Bozize alongside Nelson Mandela. The picture, like many things about the CAR, elicits a sad feeling. Explaining it in the familiar terms of a nondescript leader seeking to be equated with greatness misses the point.

CAR has never much attracted attention beyond its borders. Grafting itself onto Mandela allows the visitor to go home with a comforting image, somehow. For the locals, it lets them savour a feeling of being part of a bigger, more consequential world.

– Thanks to Yebo Gogo for the Bangui link. And for Fontaine’s recent report on Liberia’s official request that former warlord Charles Taylor be extradited from Nigeria and prosecuted for war crimes. He reports that Obasanjo has said in the past that he would hand Taylor over to a democratically elected government… like that of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Head Heeb has his usually insightful analysis of the situation, pointing out that Sirleaf is in a tight spot with Taylor – donor nations will demand his prosecution, while some of her incoming legislature will surely fight his extradition.

White African was as troubled as I by Bill Gates’s dismissive comments about the One Laptop Per Child initiative. He points out that Microsoft is now promoting an ultra-light device and may see the little green laptop as a competitor. I actually think the explanation is simpler – Gates has long been dismissive of technology transfer to the developing world. When I used to work on Geekcorps, reporters would inevitably bring up Gates’s quote that people living on a dollar a day didn’t need computers. At least he’s consistent – the Gates Foundation has done excellent work on vaccines in Africa, but hasn’t focused on technology transfer to the continent.

The problem with this set of comments from Gates is that they’re flat-out wrong… The whole point of the initiative is to make computers so inexpensive and pervasive that children won’t have to share them. Suggesting that kids would be better off with faster machines connected to broadband that they could share misses the radical vision of Negroponte’s project – the idea that any child, anywhere, should be able to learn how to use a computer. It’s too bad Gates isn’t engaging as a critic – dismissing the idea so thoroughly is pretty disappointing.

– The Beeb’s got an interesting article about EASSy – the East Africa Submarine cable System – a huge fiberoptic cable which promises to connect East African nations to the internet through high speed connections. The article prominently features colleagues of mine who point out that EASSy won’t do much to make telecoms cheaper for Africans if it’s access is governed under the same cartel structure as the west African SAT3 cable. I’ve written about this before, if you’re interested – great to see coverage of the issue in the mainstream press.

– What I love about the Beeb’s Africa coverage, though, is when they tell me about stories I know nothing about. I was aware of Senegal’s struggle with separatists from the southern Casamance region who’d wanted to form their own state, but I was unaware how active the conflict still is. Evidently, the group agitating for independence has split since the 2004 agreement with Dakar – the hardline faction led by Salif Sadio has been fighting against the faction that signed the agreement. At least one of the fighting factions crossed into northern Guinea-Bissau, where the Bissau army engaged with them to chase them back into Senegal.

One look at the map in this region gives you a sense for some of the lasting damage of European colonialism. Casamance is almost entirely separated from the rest of Senegal by Gambia, which was a British colony and is now anglophone, unlike Senegal, which is francophone. When rebels cross into Guinea Bissau, they’re suddenly in a Portuguese speaking nation. It’s difficult to get from Ziginchour to Dakar via land – it involves two border crossings, which any African will tell you means four opportunities to be shaken down for a bribe – so many residents of Ziginchour rely on ferries that connect the country. You may remember the Joola ferry disaster – it was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of students from Casamance anxious to return to university in Dakar – the best and brightest of a generation. Think those lines on the map are just a charming colonial relic? Unfortunately, they continue to be responsible for some of Africa’s most challenging problems.

5 thoughts on “Quick notes from the Continent”

  1. I actually saw this BBC piece on EASSy as this is a subject that I have very strong opinions on. I have actually been doing research and writing an essay /study on EASSY for the last 2 months and have made very little progress.

    There is some work out there that compares EASSy to SAT-3/WASC SAFE but emperical data on this project or other African fibre optic projects has proven very difficult to come by on the net.

    Lots of opinions everywhere but no numbers. The fact that this initiative is funded privately makes cracking its shell very tough indeed.

  2. “the Gates Foundation has done excellent work on vaccines in Africa, but hasn’t focused on technology transfer to the continent.”

    With THAT attitude, B.Gates better focusses on stuff he understands…

    Steve & Ethan – thx for the update on EASSy!

  3. Mr. Bill is not exactly a disinterested party in all this. Truly cheap computers aren’t going to be running Windows (unless the Bill radically changes his business model). They’ll be running Linux. He’s in a life and death struggle with Linux, and he knows it, even if many people don’t see it yet. Bill is very good at spotting the sprouts that will be oak trees and can crack his house–and stepping on them. Most people just say, “That? It’s nothing. No bigger than a blade of grass.”

    Bill’s comments are his way of stepping on the competition at this early stage. Ultimately, he’s doomed because the seeds are everywhere. But he can do a lot to slow things down and prevent the benefits from reaching people, especially if people are foolish enough to take him at his word!

  4. Having lived in Senegal and having been to the Casamance I can tell you that despite the occasional flare-ups, at least when I was there in 2003, it’s a very peaceful region. The locals (and folks from there living in other parts of the country) will tell you so long as you stay in the town, you’ll be fine. It was great to be there, and I enjoyed it in some ways more than in other parts of the country.

    It’s difficult to get from Ziginchour to Dakar via land – it involves two border crossings.

    And yes, I can see how crossing the Gambian border can make things difficult. see this post about my experiences with the so-called “Trans-Gambian Highway.”

  5. I am not surprised at Bill’s comment. The computing business is so competitive today that Gates has a good fear for the future of Windows with projects like the OLPC.

    And like he has always done with other projects that seem to have a likelihood of success, I am sure there are some hundreds of Microsoft system builders that have a deadline to bring up something like or better than the OLPC, but that is also commercially viable and Windows friendly too.

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