Laptop/USA for Africa/textese/forgotten vegetables/NGOs

There are two articles about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in the spring 2007 issue of بدون/bidoun. the second one (‘let them eat laptops’ (p72ff.) – not available online) is a relatively serious email discussion about the merits of the project between a couple of academics. the other article ‘glory‘ by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina) takes the OPLC project as a starting point for a fascinating exploration into how technology is appropriated. It’s one of the best texts i have read in a long time and starts like this:

I was twelve years old, in a small public school in Nakuru. One day, the whole school was called out of class. Some very blond and very serious people from Sweden had arrived. We were led to the round patch of grass next to the parade ground in front of the school, where the flag was. Next to the flag were two giant drums of cow shit and metal pipes and other unfamiliar accessories. We stood around, heard some burping sounds, and behold, there was light.

This is biogas, the Swedes told us. A fecal matyr. It looks like shit-it is shit-but it has given up its gas for you. With this new fuel you can light your bulbs and cook your food. You will become balanced dieted; if you are industrious perhaps you can run a small biogaspowered posho mill and engage in income generating activities.

We went back to class. Very excited. Heretofore our teachers had threatened us with straightforward visions of failure. Boys would end up shining shoes; girls would end up pregnant.

Now there was a worse thing to be: a user of biogas.

… and ends with this:

There are few useful “development models” for genuinely selfstarting people. I am sure the One Laptop per Child initiative will bring glory to its architects. The IMF will smile. Mr Negroponte will win a prize or two or ten. There will be key successes in Rwanda; in a village in Cambodia; in a small, groundbreaking initiative in Palestine, where Israeli children and Palestinian children will come together to play minesweeper. There will be many laptops in small, perfect, NGO-funded schools for AIDS orphans in Nairobi, and many earnest expatriates working in Sudan will swear by them.

And there will be many laptops in the homes of homeschooling, goattending parents in North Dakota who wear hemp (another wonderproduct for the developing world). They will fall in love with the idea of this frugal, noble laptop, available for a mere $100. Me, I would love to buy one. I would carry it with me on trips to remote Kenyan places, where I seek to find myself and live a simpler, earthier life, for two weeks a year.

In-between these two parts it covers all of the subjects in the title of this post and many more. my favorite part is probably the bit about Kenyan cellphone culture.

A guy called Njoroge has a business in Nairobi’s industrial area called “Lord of the Ringtones.” They digitalize and sell ringtones, 220,000 of them a month. Cellphones are the biggest business in Kenya.

And they are transforming culture, even as they spawn new markets. In Nairobi, a student paper caters to kids from across the city’s high schools; submissions are sent in by text message, with articles written in textesewords broken into their smallest possible lucid components. Every few months or so, rumors circulate, breaking some code or other and giving free airtime or texts. Some people have learned to communicate for free with their regular clients or family by coding their ringing: one ring, I am on my way; two rings, I have picked up the kids; three rings, I love you.

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