The Internet: Everywhere the Light Touches

Written in Jakiri, Cameroon on January 23rd, 2011

by Andrew Barisser

I am often struck by the stunning incongruities of my life in Africa. Take the internet for example. These words have reached you via my laptop, which is connected via a USB key-looking devices that uses the patchy cell phone reception to communicate with the cell phone towers that dot the surrounding landscape. The towers themselves dwarf all human signs, here in a place where I’ve lost the sensation of climbing flights of stairs. The data propagates aimlessly in all directions from my little device. Most of the signal is radiated into the ground, or into space, or even into those pesky local goats I have not stopped despising. But some small fraction of it flies at the speed of light over mud brick, tin roofed houses, all one story tall and built to last about 15 years, to the few cell phone towers. Whether my feeble signal can win out over the innumerable sources of static or cell phone signal competitors is a game of chance being replayed about every 15 seconds. When I am in luck, my device wins the attention of those fickle towers, presumably raising the cost of local phone calls infinitesimally, and produces an Internet Connection. There the story is not nearly over. The cell phone towers communicate with one another, presumably by some sort of line-of-sight microwave transmission, until the signal, which was only composed of abstractions upon abstractions anyway, reaches the data hub in Douala. Thereupon it is channeled into one of two undersea data cables that service the needs of all of West and Central Africa. These cables end in England and France respectively, from which every bit of this message was forwarded to you through equally labyrinthine channels. Contemplating those details is a bit overwhelming anywhere. But what is truly spectacular is using my internet and emerging minutes later from my house into Africa. That’s all it takes. In one moment I can be updating myself on the latest arcane internet humor, reading Wikipedia articles about Bavarian history, or seeing images from home and exchanging pleasantries with one-time Connecticut acquaintances. But as soon as it takes me to walk out my door I am in Africa. The roads are dusty. People speak Pidgin. The people have not seen Wikipedia, CNN, or my blog. They don’t know what a blog is. I am not castigating that fact. It’s just a stunning transition I encounter almost everyday: the remarkable disparity in access to information. The internet contains vast power for compiling and researching information. With the internet comes the ability to know… almost anything. At anytime. It is really an awe-inspiring capability. But we have grown accustomed to it in America: being immersed in more knowledge, more access to information than one could ever use. An American can learn almost any skill with the right dedication through persistent and deft use of the internet. It’s only a question of one’s own ingenuity. But outside my door, where there is no internet, how does one find information? There are precious few books around, of which approximately zero did not originate on a high school syllabus. The most educated people tend to flock to the big cities or leave the country where they can best cash in on their talents. If I want to know an obscure fact I must physically find someone whose opinion I value and ask them. It’s either that or scour the region for the right book: good luck. It is possible to find the internet. But its use is expensive, it is excruciatingly slow in cybercafes, and most people lack the skills to use it. The point is it’s next to impossible to find reliable answers on random specific questions if you don’t have the internet or exhaustive local libraries. This has an effect on the culture. Don’t bother asking questions if they are unanswerable. Stick to what you have written down before you. Indeed, copying is a sine qua non of academic life. This is a product of the aforementioned lack of access to data, in this case, the acute lack of textbooks. But it is taken to a mad extreme. What the teacher writes, the students copy. Copy Copy Copy. Always copy. If you draw a line, don’t think for a second that you can do it without a ruler, even if it is in your own book for your own purposes. Pens are inadmissible for sketches. Only pencils. If this means you need to interrupt another class to get the pencil you loaned out, by all means spare no effort. Red and Blue ink carry very different meanings and are never to be mixed inadvertently. Black ink is a weird color without an Honest To God properly defined role. Stay away from it. When Mr. Barisser writes the homework questions on the board at the end of class, do please copy the questions precisely even if you have no intention of doing them. It counts as something after all. You copied. Don’t ask questions about parts you didn’t understand. You’ll just disturb the natural flow of copying. Besides, Mr. Barisser speaks funny English anyway. I wonder what his mother tongue is? “Why don’t you share?” you might ask. How can I assuage my conscience when I live in a decent house all to myself, with my own internet access, my own laptop, etc, when my neighbors live in mud brick houses? There’s certainly a financial discrepancy between me and the great majority of Cameroonians, although for the record it’s not between me and Cameroonian teachers (who get about what I do). But to address that discrepancy through gifts would be precisely the wrong strategy. I could elaborate on this. Indeed, I did as a draft filling this very space, but it quickly became a rant, so I deleted it. Financial gifts send the wrong message and they produce the wrong incentives. What really needs development here are human resources. So I teach Computer Science, Form 1, at my high school. Here, in my classes of 80 students, I come to grips with the lack of computer education in Cameroon. It is in the classroom, building skills, where the most appropriate gifts lie. If this seems self-serving, well, realize that it is also true. In the meantime I will keep my internet key to myself.

Originally published at

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