"Those who have recently achieved their independence, must take care this time not to miss the last train of the twentieth century." Mathiea Ekra, Minister of State, the Ivory Coast.
The Gods Must be Crazy is a very funny movie. It portrays a group of Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert living a simple life in harmony with nature. One day a pilot flying overhead throws a Coke bottle out his window. It lands near the Bushmen who have no idea what the object is, what to do with it, or why the Gods have sent it to them. After initially appearing to be a useful object, the bottle causes jealousy and hurt. They decide to throw the bottle back up to the Gods, but it keeps falling back, so finally one elder is selected to walk to the end of the earth and throw the bottle off. Along the way he meets white people whom he aids, especially a white woman who knows nothing about nature and is quite helpless.
The movie, and its sequel, present a world that might have been written nearly two centuries ago by Rousseau or any of his English peers. It is classic Romanticism - the natural man living a life of harmony and health until he encounters the scourge of civilization with all its weaknesses and follies. Two centuries later, Romanticism still has its appeal. In a world of faxes and email and traffic jams, the idea of moving off into the hinterlands sounds good. On occasion, many of us do just that. For most, it is just a short fishing trip into the countryside, or a few days at the beach. Others are most ambitious, flying thousands of miles to escape the daily grind. Of late even the Kalahari is getting visitors as eco-tourism gains popularity with those able to cover the plane fare. Groups fly into Maun, Botswana, ride through the desert in jeeps, and even stay a few days with Bushman families, sleeping on the ground and gathering gourds.
The simple life. If we could just cut our electronic shackles and get back to nature, we could have the quality of life the Bushmen enjoy. Then again, maybe we'd better not. Maybe there is a side to poverty and isolation that isn't put in movies. Maybe if we looked beyond movies to the true state of the Bushmen and other of the world's poor, we might see that a life of ignorance is a life of powerlessness. No one knows that better than the Bushman. For the tale of the Bushmen, and of the village of Tsumkwe, Namibia where the film was made, show how little possibility exists for "natural men" to walk the Earth is harmony with nature. For the truth is, when we are aren't lying about them in movies, we are stealing their land and shooting them down.
Two books about the Bushmen that are far less funny but far more honest are The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and The Bushman Myth by Robert J. Gordon. They and numerous other accounts describe in detail the large scale slaughter of the Bushmen during this century. Nor has the destruction of the Bushmen stopped. Thomas describes how into the 1960s Afrikaner farmers in need of laborers would simply drive into the Kalahari, tempt Bushmen into their trucks with sweets or small gifts, and then drive off to their farms where the Bushmen would work for meager food and a few trinkets. The effect of their abduction on the families left behind was described by Claude McIntyre in 1955
"At Rama and Gautsika Dam I was immediately recognized and assailed by wailing women demanding the return of sons and husbands who had been similarly removed . . . Food supplies in the vicinity were exhausted [and] the whole band should . . . have trekked. . . .but they were waiting . . . in the hope that the men who had been taken away would be returned . . . I was . . . shown girl wives with children and aged women whose supports . . . had been removed by force by farmers from the Police Zone. Within the last fortnight since the Marshall expedition had left, another four Bushmen had been removed from the band by farmers" (Gordon, 1992:170-171).
In the 1980s the South African military needed trackers for its war against Namibian guerrillas. They went out into the Kalahari and hired all the men they could find. Those who survived the fighting in Angola came back to the Kalahari with pockets full of Rand and no place in a subsistence culture to spend it. So the state opened a bottle store in Tsumkwe where the money went quickly on beer and liquor. In her horrifying 1988 appendix to her book, Harmless People, Thomas describes how every person she knew in the 1950s is either murdered or becomes a killer under the influence of liquor. Coke bottles a mystery from the sky? Hardly. The South Africans sold them Coke and rum to mix it with.
The story of the Bushmen reminds us that there are no islands of primitive peoples living peaceful lives away from the rat race of civilization. There are only victims whose land and labor can be taken at will - cultures overwhelmed by highways, diseases and drugs - individuals who are totally consumed by alien forces which sometimes destroy out of calculated maleficence, but often destroy without even being aware of the damage they do.
The Bushmen are fighting for survival. And they are quickly learning the rules of the new warfare. Forming alliances with Australian aborigines, Himbas, and other indigenous people they are pressing their legal claims and making sure they get their share of air time on the 6 o'clock news. Forming the Nyae Nyae Farmers Cooperative, they are developing ways to market local products and handicrafts, as they train themselves in the methods of modern business. If courage and energy were sufficient for victory, one could be much more sanguine about their future. But the Bushmen face overwhelming odds. Virtually every development in the information age leaves them more vulnerable and demonstrates the problems faced by people like them around the world.
To understand these problems, a good place to start is Tsumkwe, Namibia. Established in 1959, the village started out as little more than a farm where experts hoped to teach Bushmen cattle-raising skills. Tsumkwe is not an easy place to reach. You begin by driving four hours north of Windhoek on two lanes of asphalt. Then you turn right - east - into the Kalahari. For the next four hours you bump along over gravel and sand leaving a long cloud of dust in your wake. You pass a few hills and a few trees, but no people or structures as you drive hour after hour through a grassy plain. Occasionally you see another car or truck, but only occasionally. After the first couple hours you feel a sense for just how isolated this community is.
The Germans wanted it that way. When they ruled the country from 1885 to 1915 they put their settlers on land that had water, good pasturage for cattle, and easy access to markets. During the South African occupation from 1915 to 1990, the policy remained the same. Non-whites, especially the Bushmen, were pushed to corners of the country, while white farmers and merchants controlled the middle. And so the Bushmen, who once controlled much of the center of Namibia were pushed out to the edge, out to the desert. They had once been miners and traders but that part of their land was taken from them. Reduced to hunting and gathering, they struggled to pull a living from the Kalahari.
The extent of their isolation becomes increasingly clear as you bump along the gravel road hour after hour. For the first hundred kilometers there are phone lines strung along the right side of the road. Then they stop at a government agricultural station. Fifty kilometers farther your car radio fades into static. For the next hundred kilometers there is just the sound of gravel popping up against the underside of the car. There are no people here. At one point I passed two Bushmen cattle herders waiting for a lift into Grootfontein. They were still there eight hours later as the sun set. I picked them up on my return.
After such a long, silent drive, Tsumkwe just seems to pop up out of the low brush. It would be easy to miss. There isn't much there, and what there is, is spread out. There is an intersection - another thin gravel road crossing yours. To your left is the school set back fifty yards from the road. A set of block rooms, it enrolls 300 in grades 1-10. Across the intersection is the only store. It looks like an old gas station. Also made of blocks it is about thirty feet square and painted white. The inside is dark and largely empty. Shelving bolted to the walls contains a scattering of food and household goods. There are two low coolers each about four feet long. One has soft drinks, the other meat. The center of the store stands empty.
Back out at the intersection, the road to the right is Main Street. On one side is the police station, then the gas station. Some days there is gas, some days not. Next is the home of the rural development official, followed by the home of "The Bushman movie star" as he is known locally. No one in town has seen The Gods Must be Crazy but they remember the filming. Across the street is the clinic. All these buildings are set well back from the road and separated from each other - space is not a problem here.
There is one residential street with eight houses for government workers. The first one is the town leader's. He also gets the generators in his backyard. Down the street are seven more houses, all about twenty years old, ranch style brick with single car attached garages and grassy front yards. It looks like it could be a suburban block from west Texas.
Driving the short distance up the gravel streets, there are few Bushmen to be seen. The store keeper is white, the government officials black. The rural development officer, Charles Chipango, is on leave to study computer science at the University of Namibia. A student of mine, he drove me back down the residential street, but kept going past the end, past the gravel, past the electricity out onto a dirt track. In a few hundred yards we came to the Bushmen. One group was living in a collection of square block structures about eight feet on a side. There were eight or ten such buildings. Across a small field were smaller stick and mud homes. We bounced over the dirt track through fields of mahango and corn.
As we came around one bend we had to stop. A Bushman was passed out drunk in the middle of the track. We edged around him and found the "shebeen" that had supplied him. In a clearing was a small structure - four poles about five feet high with a lattice of branches across the top to provide shade. Sitting in the shade was the wife of one of the government officials. She had a two liter box of wine, a boom box, and a small half pint whiskey bottle. For ten Rand she would fill the old whisky bottle with wine. The twenty or so Bushmen at the shebeen would pass the bottle around, dancing barefoot in the dirt as they drank. It was just 1 PM, and she was doing a good business. Profit margins were among the best in the world. She bought the wine for 22 Rand a box. She could fill the ten Rand bottle thirteen or fourteen times from one box. Twenty two Rand becomes one hundred and thirty with no taxes and no overhead. Not a bad profit margin.
The shebeens farther down the track didn't have any business yet. But it was early. Each had a forty gallon plastic garbage pail sitting in the shade. Home made beer was brewing in each pail. By night each would be empty, to be refilled the next day. That was the second Tsumkwe. The dirt paths and stick houses and home brewed beer back off the road, out of sight, back past where the gravel and electricity stop. For these people there are no happy natives living the simple life of "The Gods Must be Crazy." The Gods out here seem hostile, or cruel.
The world is full of small towns and Tsumkwe bears some similarities to the faded logging towns of northern Wisconsin or the Indian Reservations of North Dakota. And, like those other small rural towns, Tsumkwe illustrates every single obstacle to full inclusion in the new age of information.
Geographic isolation - Tsumkwe isn't four hours from markets, it is four hours from a road to markets. Besides which, most Kalahari Bushmen don't live in Tsumkwe, they live in small bands farther into the desert. If they wish to sell handicrafts or skins or visit relatives (or see a doctor), they have to travel a full day or more just to get to Tsumkwe. The distances hurt economically - products in the local store are far more expensive than in Windhoek because of shipping costs, yet Bushmen get less profit from their own goods because of shipping expenses. The distances also hurt personally. Relatives who move to a larger city are essentially gone forever.
Lack of Communication: It makes no economic sense to run phone wires across the Kalahari. So there are no phones. The only connection to the rest of the world is a radio phone. It is difficult and expensive to use just for voice communication. Nobody will be hooking up to electronic mail anytime soon and 400 channel TV doesn't seem to be in their future. There is mail. Once every week or two someone volunteers to drive the four and half hours to Grootfontein to get it.
Lack of Information: The General store in Tsumkwe sells no newspapers. Radio reception is only possible with a really good antenna and then only at sun up and sun down. At those times the faint signal is as likely to come from Botswana as Namibia. TVs don't exist.
Lack of Education: The school in town is less than twenty years old and appears solid. The problem is the teachers. They have broken into two factions - the qualified and the unqualified. The qualified teachers either have university degrees (one's an American Peace Corps Volunteer), or have attended a teacher training college. There are four of these teachers. They are out numbered by the eight unqualified teachers who have completed eighth grade and little else. These teachers tend to be both unqualified and uninterested. One regularly comes to class drunk. Another sleeps at his desk most of the day. His fellow teachers can tell when he is asleep, his students climb up into the ceiling area under the roof and look down on adjoining classes. A third teacher was finally run off when he was confronted with numerous students who said he paid them ten Namibian dollars for sex. The battle between the two groups continues, with the unqualified teachers generally winning a maintenance of the status quo.
Inability to speak or understand the dominant language: Namibia has had several national languages. During the German occupation it was German (it is still the principal language of commerce), under the South African it was Afrikaans. With independence in 1990 the official language became English. The problem for the people of Tsumkwe is that the official language has never been Bushman. The language problem affects their children (and the problems they have in trying to learn), it affects their ability to keep up with the world around them, it affects their ability to defend themselves in a court of law. Anthropologist Dorothea Bleek recognized over half a century ago the problems Bushman had in courts:
[Bushmen] are dreadfully afraid of the white man, particularly the policemen, who appears to them merely an arbitrary tyrant as they don't understand the laws . . . half the convictions of Bushman under the game laws would not take place, if the accused did not let themselves be frightened into owning to the police . . . [The Police] take care not to worn the natives that anything they say will be used against them. When Bushmen appear in court they have no idea of what would be accepted as defense or in mitigation of sentence, and the interpreting is mostly done by native constables who are anxious to please the white policemen they serve under and to "make a case." (Bleek, 1922:48-49).
To the Bushmen, every encounter with the legal system must seem like something out of Kafka.
Poverty: One of the cruder ironies of the information age is that rich people get their information practically for free, while poor people pay dearly for every morsel. Be it a telephone call, a newspaper, a drive to the store - all cost more in Tsumkwe than they do in Beverly Hills. They cost more in absolute terms, they cost astronomically more in relative terms - as a percentage of a days wage. How many Americans would work an hour for a newspaper, two hours for a phone call, a day to see a movie, a lifetime for a home computer? Yet for those on the edge of survival, information is more important. If every evening for a month goes into making a basket, what kind of baskets are selling in Windhoek? What size? Will the new crafts store in Tsumeb pay more? Are tourists coming to Tsumkwe who might buy it? The poor can't afford wasted effort - unsold production. Yet they know almost nothing about the world. Where a phone call costs more than a basket, you don't call around to check markets.
The Bushmen of the Kalahari are an extreme example of people who are disconnected from the new age, but they are unfortunately not alone. All over the world are people and groups who, for various reasons, are off the information highway. The consequences for them are the consequences always faced by the powerless. The reasons for their predicament are worth further elaboration. Some of the reasons, such as poor education, we will describe in later chapters. For now, we will concentrate on four of the information problems most frequently faced by the poor: geographic isolation, lack of communication channels, language problems, and lack of computer systems. Each problem deepens the isolation and weakness of the poor.
The importance of location was already described in Chapter Three. Whether it is the concentration of Network experts in Washington, or Reich’s information capitals of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Washington, the new age seems to be drawing leaders together, not dispersing them across the planet. Electronic links are used to supplement face to face contact, not replace it. To fully make contact with people and their supply of information, you still have to be able to get there from here.
Unfortunately, there are a number of circumstances that limit travel. It is easier to get to some places, and increasingly difficult to get to others. The explanation comes from three current phenomena: airplanes, roads, and fear.
Airplanes: Airplanes of course make travel very fast with a New Yorker being able to get to London in about six hours, Los Angeles in five, Chicago in two. But what if a New Yorker wants to fly to Des Moines? Or Fargo? Or Green Bay? Our traveler suddenly discovers the hub and spoke approach to air routes. Getting from hub to hub is quick, there are many flights, and there are often good air fares. The spokes are the problem. If the city at the end of the spoke is a big one, you at least get a big plane and stewardesses with drinks and peanuts. If the city at the end of the line is a small one, you may not even get a restroom. You also lose time. Besides the lay over to catch one of the infrequent flights to the boonies, when you do board you discover your little plane takes as long to fly from Chicago to Stevens Point as the big plane took to get from New York to Chicago. Then add cost. The cost of a flight is only marginally determined by distance. Much of the cost is in airport fees so it matters little whether the flight travels 200 miles or two thousand. Add the lack of competition on remote flights and you often have 200 mile flights costing more than 2000 mile flights. For all these reasons, major airports are filled every evening with commuters asking themselves, "why do I live in Green Bay, Duluth, Oshkosh . . . If I lived here I'd be home by now."
The hub and spoke system exists in Africa, but with a very interesting twist. Johannesburg is a major hub, but because of its southern location and because of past trade sanctions, Nairobi, Kenya also developed as a hub, but so did Frankfurt and Paris and London. The fact that Frankfurt , Germany would be a hub for flights between African countries at first seems silly, but it has a fairly sound basis. First, begin with the fact that African nations don't really trade much amongst themselves. Namibia and Botswana are neighbors and share a huge border, but the border happens to be the Kalahari Desert - no roads, no commerce. Namibia and Angola also share a large border. Angola has been at war with itself for twenty years - no safe travel, no commerce. This litany could be repeated for country after country. Then add colonialism. African countries may be politically free now, but their major industries are owned by Europeans. Money goes to Europe, exports go to Europe, managers come from Europe. Then there are donor programs. Consultants come from Europe, aid checks come from Europe, students go to Europe. The result is that air travel from any African country to Europe is often far more significant than to any other African country.
It can also be faster to Europe. Windhoek, Namibia to Frankfurt, Germany is nearly 5000 miles. The flight is direct and takes just under ten hours. Windhoek, Namibia to Mozambique is nearly 1000 miles. The flight requires a change of planes and an overnight stay in Johannesburg. Your friend flying to Frankfurt will have had breakfast and be reporting to his manager at Siemens while you are still trying to clear customs in Mozambique. So, since there are already so many flights filling the air to and from Europe, why not make it a hub? As an acquaintance discovered, the shortest route from Namibia to Gambia was through Frankfurt. The effect of all this on African unity is subtle, but important. It is often easier for a European to get to parts of Africa than it is for an African. It is also often cheaper.
Roads: Every year some small town in Nebraska lobbies the state to have its name placed on Interstate 80. No matter that it may be 50, 60, 80 miles or more off the highway, it wants a sign saying that this is the exit to North Farmington or East Libertyville. Its hard to blame them. As small town struggles to stay alive, a freeway that goes by with no mention of your distant existence is a slap in the face and a nail in your coffin.
This concentration of people and businesses along Interstates in the US, and the skyrocketing land values around each exit, demonstrate both that we still move people by road, and the way technology affects behavior. Part of the advantage of Interstates is that they are wider and safer and graded to reduce inclines and declines, and supported with an infrastructure like truck stops and highway patrol. But they also match the technology of the car. There is constantly talk of "smart roads" with wires that send signals to cars to direct them with no need for human steering or talk of other interesting high tech devices. Maybe we will see them, maybe we won't. In the meantime we already have one device that matches up well with interstates - cruise control. Set it, and take your foot off the gas, and cruise for hour after hour. The difference in the way drivers feel at the end of the day is noticeable. The change in their behavior is also noticeable. Would you rather drive 100 miles on two lanes of asphalt, or 120 on interstate? 130? 140? No trucks to pass, no sharp bends or sudden hills that might hide a hay wagon or school bus, no Sunday drivers making sure they stay safely below 55 while you look desperately for a place to pass. Equally important, no small town with stop signs, 25 mile per hour zones, and local cops looking for tourist income.
While the US moves its highways from two to four lanes and leaves behind the two lane towns and villages, much of the world follows in the same direction. Korea, which as recently as 1970 was excited about having a single highway connecting Seoul to Pusan, now has enough highways and cars that it can afford semi-annual grid-lock traffic jams. Europe has dug under the English Channel and through the Alps. In the first world, getting there becomes less and less a problem.
In the developing world, it is becoming more true that you can't get there from here. In Bangladesh roads get in the way of annual floods. Sometimes the roads win, creating far worse floods in other parts of the country, usually the floods win - leaving people cut off from food and medical help. In Africa the long dreamed of Cape to Cairo route seems more and more remote as even existing routes slowly disappear. A recent World Bank review of transportation systems in Africa summed up the problem:
Roads and railways are poorly maintained, while complicated customs and administrative procedures add to delays and costs. Inefficiencies when goods are handled at terminals, and transferred from one transport mode to another, are compounded by delays in the interactions between the agencies involved in transit. For Mali's imports from Europe, for example, delays in African ports and terminals take longer than the sea section of the journey. For Uganda, Malawi, and Eastern Zaire, Tanzania potentially offers the cheapest access to the sea, but the poor state of Tanzanian roads and railways rules this option out.
Worsening security has added to costs and risks. Many traditional--relatively efficient--routes have been closed by civil unrest or political differences between countries. The closure of major corridors from Beira, Nacala, and Maputo, on the Indian Ocean, and Lobito, on the Atlantic, has severely affected the economies of LLCs [land locked countries]. For Malawi by the late 1980s, for example, additional transport charges since the closure had caused cumulative losses of more than $75 million. (World Bank, 1995)
Around the world, many places are becoming more isolated, not less. Whether it is the crossroads in Nebraska desperately hoping for a sign saying it is only 58 miles from the Interstate, or the small city in Zimbabwe hoping the rains stop long enough for trucks to get through, we are leaving much of the world behind.
Fear: Sometimes the world we leave behind isn't very far away. The great Interstates we travel pass over or around neighborhoods we seldom visit. Recent American literature increasingly builds plots around chance detours off the highway. Whether Grand Canyon or Bonfires of the Vanities or lesser known works, there is increasing discussion of the dangers or entering into "that" part of town. A recent spate of killings targeting European and Japanese tourists has much of the world wondering whether "that part of town" is really the entire United States. Meanwhile our State Department keeps up a list of countries unsafe for Americans.
It would be nice to say that all this was just hysteria to be solved by a session with a counselor, but the dangers are unfortunately real. In Algeria and Egypt and Florida they really do target and kill tourists. In every inner city in America children are killed daily because they were standing on the wrong corner or sleeping in a bed within Ouzi range of a crack house. In much of the world being the wrong religion or color or nationality or tribe can get you killed. Jews still aren't safe in Germany, neither Jews nor Arabs are safe in Israel, in Central Africa on any day one tribe can rise up and kill tens of thousands of their countrymen. It happens over and over again. In South Africa Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright Scholar, drove several friends to their homes in the Black township of Gugaletu. A gang of teenage boys saw her white face, stopped the car, dragged her out and beat and stabbed her to death. As her friends tried to stop them - they screamed "Why are you doing this?" The boys answered, "she's a settler." The campaign slogan of South Africa's Pan-Africanist Congress is "one settler, one bullet." - Genocide reduced to a bumper sticker. The whites in South Africa aren't as good with slogans, but they know how to kill. Just before Christmas 1993 a group of young white men in military fatigues set up a road block outside Johannesburg. They stopped all the motorists coming down the highway. If the people in the car were Black, they killed them - men, women, and children. In one case they cut the ears off a victim as a trophy.
The effect of fear on information flow is obvious. In January 1994 a large member of journalists came to South Africa to explore life prior to the elections. Within a week of each other two film crews, one Polish, one German, tried to tape what life was like for children in the Black townships. One crew was robbed of all its equipment, one crew was beaten and then robbed. The story of childhood in the townships will go untold. Tourists are neither ambassadors nor scholars but they do carry some information about their country when they travel and bring back some awareness of the world when they return. 50,000 fewer tourists ventured into Egypt in 1993. The number not daring to enter the US may be as high. Student exchange programs have grown rapidly as parents and children understand the benefits of learning a foreign language and culture. But before Japanese students come to the US they are shown a video tape of America which prepares them to live in a country where crazy people walk down the street legally armed and dangerous.
Rotary International funds one of the larger student exchange programs. When PAC demonstrators outside the trial of Amy Biehl's killers spotted Ms. Biehl's mother and changed the chant of "One settler, one bullet" to "One American, one bullet," Rotary Clubs in South Africa immediately put three exchange students on a plane back to the US and arranged to have a further 34 put on a long tour of Namibia. (Oddly enough, PAC President, Clarence Makwetu, later complained about how few campaign contributions his party was getting from overseas. Apparently, "one American, one bullet" fell flat as a fund raising slogan in the US)
The biggest losers from fear are the poor who live in the nations and neighborhoods where travel is unsafe. Not only are they the preponderant victims of crime, but their own access to information, already severely limited, is further restricted. One American example may best illustrate. In 1992 the Chronicle of Higher Education reported a new phenomenon. College students from inner cities weren't going home for the summer. Growing number of Black students found jobs on their rural campuses, or in the adjoining college towns, and stayed year round. When approached for interviews they were very candid about why they had made their choices - they were afraid to go home. The consequences for these students were clear - loneliness as they were cut off from family and friends. The consequences for the inner city are equally real, if less obvious. These are the young men and women who could be role models in the old neighborhood. For high school students confused about the procedures of college applications, they could be guides. For students needing academic help, they could be tutors. For adolescents struggling to confront the world, they would be a voice of reason. But instead they are mowing lawns and planting pansies two hundred miles away in the safety of small town America. The loss for the children left behind mounts yearly.
Lack of Communication
Getting information from point A to point B requires some kind of communication medium. I need a way to get it there. In the US I may have a wide range of options - I can telephone, FAX, send a note via Internet, or drop a letter in the mail. I have a range of communication channels. Would that it were so in the rest of the world. The physical bounds of information flow are still with us whether we are looking at phones, mail, or email.
Phones: Phones are crucial not just because they are so important in maintaining personal and professional connections, but because they are also the medium used for data transmission. As the world becomes one large Wide Area Network, the phone lines and switches become our information highways. Where the phone lines go, information follows. Unfortunately, there are very many places where the phone lines don't go.
Let's start with America. The US Census Bureau says we have 51 lines per 100 population. That's not best in the world (Sweden leads with 68, followed by Switzerland, 58, Canada, 57, Denmark, 57, and Finland, 53), but it is well above average. Assuming some phone sharing, just about everyone can get to a phone at home. But there are exceptions. About one in four American Indian, Eskimo and Aleut households don't have a phone, and 53% of American Indian households on reservations have no phone (Vandewater, 1994). And the rural South is still a problem, with twelve percent of households in Mississippi and New Mexico having no phones, followed by Arkansas at 11%.
Bad as the numbers are for parts of America, here is a list of the countries that have just one line per 100 people.
(US Census, 856)
Between China and India we have essentially half the world's people working off one line per one hundred people. Dozens of other countries have just two, three, or four lines per hundred people. For most of the world, the phone is not an accessible technology. It is literally true that half the world’s population is waiting to make its first phone call.
Brazil represents one form of the problem. With only seven lines per one hundred people, ten million Brazilians want phones but can't get them. Even after paying $2000 for a line, customers have to be lucky to use their new phones -- only 57% of calls placed actually get through (Margolis, 1994). Under conditions like these, new businesses are at a huge disadvantage. Imagine being a business start-up and having to wait a year until customers could call in an order. Brazil's problem derives from an unwillingness to challenge the state monopoly. Foreign businesses may not compete and local companies can't meet demand. Meanwhile you wait years for a dial tone.
Propping up a state telephone industry is the cause for much of the problems with Eastern European phone systems. Germany is essentially having to rebuild systems from the ground up in the former German Democratic Republic. In one former East German university it was easier to call the US than to call across campus. It will take years to create modern phone capacity in that part of the world.
In Africa the problem is a bizarre combination of poverty and foreign aid. Zimbabwe's phones aren't the worst on the continent but they are currently drawing the most unfavorable press. Part of the problem stems from foreign aid. Five European countries have been very happy to pay for state of the art digital exchanges, but they will only pay for exchanges purchased from their own corporations. As a result, Zimbabwe has five different exchange switches with five times the maintenance difficulties it might other wise have. But even so it can keep the exchanges up and running. The real problem is the "last mile." No foreign donor is waiting to pay for the lines out to homes. Putting them in is expensive and time consuming so customers wait. The new digital exchanges are only being used at 40% capacity - there is plenty of room for more traffic, but there isn't either local money or foreign interest in building the "on ramps" to this particular information highway.
The costs of installing phones may be an insurmountable obstacle in much of the developing world. Residents and businesses there are hit by three special problems, each pushing phones out of reach. First, labor costs are high. Throughout Africa there is a shortage of people with technical skills. The reasons for this are reviewed in a later chapter. For the moment it is enough to consider the effect of the shortage - phone technicians are in short supply and so draw good salaries. Second, much of the third world is still rural. That means it takes longer lines (and higher costs) to get to customers. Telecom Namibia estimates it costs almost $5,000 US to hook-up one rural phone. That high cost helps explain why a relatively well-off country like Namibia only has 65,000 phones serving a population of 1.5 million. Because of high labor costs and high installation costs it is often more expensive to get a phone in Africa than in the US. We know the third world has less money than the US (dramatically less as we shall shortly see) yet their phone costs are higher. As a consequence the vast majority simply don't have phones.
Where phones do exist, it is fascinating to see how they are linked to the rest of the world. Driving through southern Namibia the Kalahari stretches on mile after empty mile. You can drive a long way without seeing a building or a person, or another car on the highway. But there's no shortage of microwave towers. The banks in Windhoek need to connect to the main computer of their headquarters in Johannesburg. For 35˘ per kilometer the channels are kept open for them and everyone else with business connections to South Africa. The links to the south are state of the art.
Calls to the north are another matter. Half of Namibia's population, but none of its corporate owners, live along the Angolan border. Four years after independence from South Africa optical fiber is finally being laid to the north. Gradually digital switches are going in. In the meantime, a person looking at a map of trunk lines would be forgiven for not noticing that Namibia is no longer a South African colony. Most of the rest of the third world has similar vestiges. Can't remember if a country used to be a colony of England or France or Portugal or Germany? Follow the fiber or the satellite uplinks - it's not too hard to trace history.
Third, telephones are vulnerable to violence. A particularly ugly example exists in South Africa. For much of the last decade, there has been a constant battle between supporters of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Thousands of people have been killed with thirty to forty dying on an average weekend. Social services cannot handle this kind of strain and one of the first pieces of infrastructure to go is the telephone. Lines are cut and can't be repaired because of the violence, repair crews are robbed of their trucks and equipment. As a consequence, at one point in 1994, in East Rand townships 10,000 people were waiting for phones to be installed and 5000 phones were out of order. In Soweto township 2,700 families were waiting for phone installations while 1,500 phones were out of order. According to Telekom's communication manager for that region, "The East Rand townships are inaccessible. We have cables there and all we need to do is just connect. If it were not for the violence, all those people would have had phones." (Moroke,1994:5)
Mail: Anatoly Vorovov, director of a Russian network linked to the Internet sums up mail delivery in much of the world - "Here you can send email to Vladisvostak or Boston in five seconds. Or you can wait three months to get a magazine by mail" . Unfortunately for the world, Mr. Vorovov is wrong about Internet (it is fast but unavailable to more than a tiny fraction of the world's people), and right about mail.
Part of the problem with mail is that as a physical entity it moves no faster than people. It may fly part of the way at 500 miles per hour, or ride the back of a mail truck at 55 miles per hour, but often it is just moving as fast as a person can walk. None of this compares very well with electronic mail traveling at 186,000 miles per second.
But not all mail is equally slow. Take the US. Recent audits have shown mail in some major cities being hidden, held, or trashed. In Washington DC, 800,000 first class letters were found after being stashed in parked trailers for three days. In Chicago firefighters found over a ton of mail hidden in a letter carrier's home (Farley, 1994). In general, the Postal Service agrees there are problems with traffic congestion in metropolitan areas. It appears people in US cities simply have to wait longer for their mail.
In the developing world mail traffic is even more odd. David Lush heads the Media Institute of Southern Africa headquartered in Windhoek, Namibia. His organization creates a monthly newsletter preaching press freedom issues in Africa. He describes his mail experience this way. "When I mail my newsletters to Europe, they are there in 5 days. Zambia [one of the countries adjoining Namibia] takes 4 weeks. Zimbabwe takes 4 weeks. Mozambique takes 5 weeks. Angola . . . well, if it arrives at all, it takes 5 weeks. Half the time it just disappears."
There seems to an ironic connection to costs as well -- the worse the service, the higher the cost. Here are MISA's mailing costs for the same three kilogram package of newsletters:
South Africa $ 4.40
The same forces that make it easier to get from Namibia to Gambia by flying through Germany, make it faster to send mail 6000 miles than 600. The infrastructure to get to the corporate home office in Europe is maintained. The infrastructure to get to the country next door may never have existed. This has economic consequences. Sub-Saharan Africa has created the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to try to build economic ties within the region. But if it takes 5 weeks for a bid to be mailed to a neighboring country and another 4 for a contract to come back, what kind of "community" is there? As Lush puts it, "As far as communications are concerned, we might as well be part of the European Economic Community, SADC doesn't exist." The mail reflects and reinforces old dependencies.
Electronic mail: In theory, electronic mail - email -could be a communications life line to the development world. As the network leader in Moscow pointed out, when mail takes three months to arrive, email looks especially good. Not only does it provide speedy access, but it provides crucial access to expertise. But two examples illustrate the difficulties involved in making electronic mail a reality for all.
SADC Regional Early Warning System. A major effort is underway to get weather information to governments in Southern Africa. NASA overflights are able to identify weather patterns that might produce rain (Cold Cloud Duration figures). In the past, those were collected in Florida, and transferred by diplomatic pouch to various African governments. The process took three weeks, which meant the data was largely useless. The purpose of the new system was to downlink the information directly to Harare, Zimbabwe, where it could be communicated to 10 SADC centers.
The project has been underway for three years and has succeeded in getting information to five countries on a regular basis. The other five are still off-line after three years of trying. Why? One problem is local expertise. Workers at the local meteorology department could not install the internal modems purchased by the project. The second problem was phone companies. Some could handle digital data, some could not. Often the data moved quite well over international lines, and then got lost as it passed over antiquated local lines. Work continues on the last five countries (Freeland, 1994).
African Universities: Email systems could also be a great benefit to African Universities. The unending decline in the average standard of living coupled with political turmoil and political oppression has left the average university in dire straits. Faculty salaries are so bad, professors either leave the profession outright or leave by taking second jobs while their university teaching commitment is reduced to the fewest possible hours. University libraries are hit by a double problem of lower budgets while book prices are ever increasing. The result is weaker and weaker collections. By one estimation, 80% of what is known about Africa is located not in Africa, but in the libraries and government offices of Europe and the US. As a result, someone wishing to study Africa might be well advised to do most of his or her studying outside of Africa.
For a university student in Africa, access to those foreign libraries could be crucial. One guideline says libraries should have 100 books per student to insure a range and depth of coverage. The library of the University of Namibia contains 8 books per student (Students are only allowed to check out 5 books. If they took out more, the library could disappear overnight). The university is actively seeking to build its library collection, but since it perennially operates in a deficit, major allocations for books are unlikely.
The United Nations has a project underway to link African universities and their libraries. It is providing computer equipment, modems, and expertise. What it can't provide is phone lines, and that is where problems begin. Computers communicate at various speeds. The slowest communication speed - 300 baud - would transmit 30 characters per second. This page contains slightly less than 3000 characters, but let's keep the math simple and round up to an even 3000. At 30 characters per second, it would take 100 seconds, or almost two minutes just to send this one page.
Of course there are much faster links possible. A 14,400 baud modem is easily found. Since it transmits 1,440 characters a second, this page would be gone in just over two seconds - almost fifty times faster. Surely, this would be the way to go, especially since African telephone charges are often three or four times what a similar call would cost in the US. Except for one problem. Africa's phone lines can rarely handle high speeds. Despite repeated attempts, the UN can't even reach Madagascar at 300 baud - the slowest possible rate. Lines elsewhere often lose messages at speeds above 1200 baud (120 characters per second). As a consequence, not only do African phones cost more per minute, but messages take more minutes to send than they would in the US. This combination means some of the world poorest people have to pay the world's highest charges for electronic mail. As a result, people who might be helped most by email are limited in its use.
When it became independent in 1990, Namibia did a very strange thing - it adopted English as its national language. It was a strange move because almost no one in the country spoke English. The largest Black tribe, the group that had carried on most of the guerrilla war against South Africa, the group that led the revolutionary movement, spoke Oshivambo. The group that lost, but was able to stay on under a policy of national reconciliation, spoke Afrikaans. The merchant class spoke German. The other rural tribes spoke Damara or Herero. No identifiable group spoke English. It was like the Canadians foregoing French and English and deciding to make Portuguese the national language.
But there was a great deal of sense to the decision. Since Afrikaans and German were identified with colonial oppression, neither could be accepted. Oshivambo was spoken by the majority of the population, but picking one tribe's language over any other would stand in the face of national unity. Another choice was needed. Why not go with a language spoken in other parts of Africa, a language spoken around the world?
Actually, on a day to day basis, there are plenty of strikes against English - nightly TV news that few people can understand, schools being taught in English by teachers who can't speak English, a merchant class still loyal to Afrikaans and German. It will probably take a generation before the average Namibian can order a meal in English, or count change, or read an auto repair manual. For a poor country in a remote corner of Africa, they have set themselves a significant task.
Does it make any sense to put themselves in the predicament when they have so many other problems as well? It does to the leaders of the country, most of whom spent long years in exile, living throughout Europe and North America, experiencing first hand the powerlessness of people who can't speak the dominant language. They returned home in 1990 determined not to repeat that problem.
This question of language in the information age is a crucial one, and Namibians aren't the only ones who are wrestling with it. In India senior politicians have recently demonstrated against the compulsory English language portion of the civil service exam. They point out that English is only spoken by a thin layer of rich Indians, while 43% speak Hindi and the rest speak one of 14 other major languages. Supporters of English point out, "English, like air conditioners and cars, is a sign of economic inequality. But it is often the only means of communication in our multilingual society." (Talk, 1994:12).
There are also a number of technical forces that heavily favor English as the language of the new age. First, English dominates the world of computing. Both the British and the Americans like to claim their nation as the birthplace of computing, but in one way it doesn't matter which did what - both are English speaking nations and English is all over computer technology. English speaking nations produce the hardware and the software for the world. Two of the three biggest computer companies in Japan are IBM and Apple (with NEC fading fast). Microsoft is the world's operating system.
This dominance of English, by the way, doesn't necessarily mean permanent dominance by Americans. Yourdon's Decline and Fall of the American Programmer describes the upsurge of foreign software houses, notably those located in India, and points out that programmers there also speak English and can produce excellent programs for a tiny fraction of what American programmers charge. English speaking software can flow back into the US as fast as it flows out. But in either direction, it is English that matters.
Communication technology is another place where the English language dominates. We have already discussed the growing use of computer networks and the phone links between buildings and between nations. The signal that travels down that wire, is essentially a long series of binary shifts - high or low voltage, high or low frequency - the communication equivalent to 1s and 0s, the binary code of computers. We take the letter A, agree that it is 01000001 in binary code and send it down the wire as low frequency, high, low, low, low, low, low, high (or any other recognizable series of shifts from one state to another), and as long as the computer at the other end of the line is using the same code book, it recognizes that it was just sent an 'A'.
There are a number of these codes. One of the major codes is ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). Notice the first word. Americans wrote it, and use it extensively, and have exported it widely. It is a very efficient code, especially if you are transmitting the letters Americans know best - English. Extended ASCII even contains codes for special letters in Spanish, French, or German. But there it stops. Neither it, nor any of the other major international codes can encode Kanji of Japan, Hangul of Korea, or characters of China, or Bushman of the Kalahari, or hieroglyphics of Egypt, or . . . There is a very extensive list of languages and alphabets unknown to international codes. So if you are sitting at a computer in Kyoto and want to sent a message to a branch in Indiana, the language you use is . . .
While English is the native language of Internet and so appears naturally, sometimes it is even enforced. Discussion groups all have a moderator who answers questions about signing on and off the list. Sometimes moderators also screen messages; usually they stay out of the way. Before coming to Africa I joined a group discussing international development. It was a good group and I learned a lot from the posted messages. But one day a member from Argentina posted a message in Spanish. For the first time, the moderator jumped in and wrote a message condemning the Argentian and reminding the rest of us that the official language of the group was English. For academics and government officials around the world, the message is you can get amazing resources over Internet, but you have to ask for them in English.
Lack of Information Systems
The developing world has far more advanced computer systems than people normally think. The fact that some of these countries, notably India, are now exporting computer software show the level of expertise that has developed in many countries. Basic business systems and normal government systems are routinely available. Partly this is because businesses and governments have the same needs around the world. Partly this is because developing countries may actually have greater information needs in some circumstances. As one systems developer put it in describing a government system in Sudan,
"The Sudan is host to a bewildering array of international aid agencies, multilateral and unilateral donors, lenders and operative agencies. In the early to mid-1980s, over 200 foreign or international organizations were involved in refugee relief and famine assistance efforts alone. Without major [computer] reforms, the Sudanese government lacked the capacity to monitor the activities of these various actors." (Calhoune, 1992:26-27)
He goes on to say "It does not exaggerate . . . to say that the cost [of poor computer systems] may include an element of national sovereignty." Keeping track of all the foreigners in one's country performing quasi-governmental activities is certainly an unusual use for information system, but surely an important one. More recently, human rights organizations were in Ethiopia to help build new computer systems. They entered over 100,000 computer files in an attempt both to help identify the estimated 50,000 killed during the 17 years of Colonel Mengista Haile Mariavis' communist rule, and to help provide evidence to identify their executioners. Six miles away, forensic teams began exhuming bodies from mass graves.
While information systems are both present and necessary in the developing world, there are a number of barriers preventing them from being as useful or common as they are in the developed world.
One problem is weather. The equator is hot. At temperatures of 130°F computers overheat and shut down. Newer microcomputers are better in hot climates than older mainframe computers, but they are still vulnerable to over heating. The response, air conditioning, solves the problem, but restricts computers to air conditioned areas often centralizing their use - the very opposite of the international trend toward distributed systems.
Electricity may be a bigger problem with wide voltage spikes and brown outs that raise havoc with equipment. Surge suppressers and uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) are a standard requirement, but of course push up the cost of computer systems.
Lack of local service may be the biggest problem faced. The whole system may be useless for want of an RS-232 adapter. Networks can be unused because no one can find an extension cord. The rural areas of Russia were so notorious for being short of the kind of things we could find in any US hardware store, when IBM won a contract to begin installing computer systems in rural Russian schools, it set up a packaging system in Scotland that put the school's entire computer network on one pallet and then shrink-wrapped the whole thing. On the pallet would not only go the usual computers, but printer paper, computer disks, and lengthy extension cords that could link the computers to the school's one electrical outlet that might actually work.
In Africa the lack of local repair facilities is actually made worse by donors who bring whatever computers consultants are comfortable with (usually a brand from the donor nation) even though it may be totally incompatible with already existing equipment and totally foreign to any local computer store. They don't have parts for it, they don't have service manuals for it, it is just one more computer that has to be boxed up and shipped halfway around the world for very expensive repairs. One survey in Tanzania found only 55% of computer brought in by donor groups could be serviced locally (Grant Lewis, 1992)
Shortage of qualified personnel is another serious problem. Information technology is a new and rapidly developing field so information system managers world wide are struggling to staff their operations, but problems in the developing world seem especially acute. Partly this is a consequence of the general weakness of educational systems, partly this is a result of the odd orientation of African universities toward liberal arts and away from technical subjects (a situation that has drawn increased attention from the World Bank). But the results can be startling. In 1993 the University of Namibia graduated 1 computer science major! In 1994 it graduated 3. The University of Uganda only began a computer science program in 1992. For much of Africa, a cadre of well trained computer professionals simply isn't being created.
The lack of educational programs in computing unfortunately results in part from government attitudes toward computers. Rather than seeing computers as a growth industry or as a means of catching up with the rest of the world, African governments tend to see computers as a drain on their treasuries and as a threat of employment. Fear of the computer is not universal. One of the more passionate statements ever made in favor of computer information systems came from Mathiea Ekra, Minister of State, and president of the National Commission on Informatics of the Ivory Coast. He said in 1983, "those who have recently achieved their independence, must take care this time not to miss the last train of the twentieth century . . .Ivory Coast now has the possibility to enter fully into the information era and to recover from its economic crisis (Jules-Rosette, 1992:122). Unfortunately the economic crisis of the Ivory Coast seems to be getting worse and the current government seems interested in derailing the last train of the twentieth century.
How Poor Are They?
Money isn't everything. The next two chapters make it clear that even rich people can assert their right to be ignorant. But for people of good will with normal human curiosity, money matters. For virtually every problem discussed in this chapter, part of the solution is money. Need to see the world? Buy a car or a plane ticket. Trouble getting communications? Launch a satellite or lay a phone line. Problems with language? Hire a translator. Need a computer system? Buy one. It's a little too flip to say money would solve everything, but people driving around with a cellular phone in their hand and a gold card in their wallet may not even know there is a problem.
Unfortunately, for much of the world's population, the problem is not only serious, it is getting worse. A few short pages on world poverty is hardly fair to the subject, but it may at least indicate why most of the world's people won't be part of anything we would recognize as an information age.
Let's begin with specifics. South Africa has the most healthy economy on the continent. Yet a short drive from Johannesburg, two-thirds of adult Blacks in Northern Transval receive no cash income (Davie, 1994). In nearby Lebowa, 74% of Blacks receive no cash income. Those who are lucky enough to find work aren't much better off. Most jobs are in agriculture where a months pay averages R175 (about $50). But few will find work. One study concluded there are jobs for less than one-third of the available workers in that region.
How do people with no money or little money live? Obviously not very well. Disease is common, about one-third of the children are malnourished, and the average housing density is 21 people per dwelling (no, that's not a misprint, the tiny shacks outside of Johannesburg house an average of 21 people each). All this would be tragic if we were describing the poorest people in the world. But we aren't. These are citizens of the wealthiest country in Africa. Elsewhere in the continent it gets worse - much worse.
How much worse? We can't really tell. In a 1992 survey completed by the World Bank, Mozambique appeared to be the poorest country in the world with per capita gross domestic product of $60. But at least Mozambique could report. Angola's government couldn't fill out the World Bank survey because the government controls only a small portion of the country. Much of Angola has been locked in civil war for 20 years. In places under extended siege, 1993 saw the first reports of people eating neighbors killed in the shelling. Elsewhere in Africa intertribal wars left genocide as a bigger problem than poverty. We do know that in the African countries that still have a functioning national government, and can provide statistics, things are so bad that 8 out of 10 of the world's poorest countries are African.
In sum, we have one large section of the world where every new year means a declining standard of living - more desert, more AIDS, more babies, fewer jobs. There is no reason to expect African economies to improve and every reason to predict further decline.
It is no enduring criticism of the new age to say that not everyone will share in the benefits. The move to agriculture hurt - and continues to hurt - traditional hunters and gatherers. The industrial age had its own set of horrors. It only takes a little Dickens to see the costs of that revolution. It would be naive to assume information, and its benefits would be equally available to everyone.
On the other hand, it seems particularly callous to ignore those being left behind. The poor, cut off by geography or language, are powerless and they know it. They understand that living away from information does not free them from the stresses of the modern age, it leaves them to be victimized. The "noble savages" of this century are in reality poor, drunk, and isolated. Others will determine their fate. Others may or may not even bother to tell them what future has been selected for them. The poor won't even know the discussion is occurring, much less have a chance to join in.
If information is the last train of the 20th century, we are leaving many people and whole regions of the world behind. Those left behind know there is nothing in their condition to celebrate. Eco-tourists may join them in the desert for a few days, but the tourists know enough to get back on the plane when the rains come.