Will No One Speak for Africa?

Dvorak has written a scathing criticism about the OLPC ($100 laptop). Bill Thompson answers it in a BBC article:

“And he demeans the people who will receive the computers, asking his readers if they will feel “better about the world’s problems, knowing that some poor tribesman’s child has a laptop”, apparently contrasting a “tribesman” with a real person like himself, safe in his Western affluence.”

OLPC - Icons

Who cares?
Why does it matter that two rich Westerners are batting back and forth over the strategies and benefits of a cheap computer for children in developing countries?

As someone who grew up in Sudan and Kenya, I care. I care because I continue to hear the argument, “why give kids a computer when what they really need is food and water?” I care because people need to stop talking about Africans as if they’re in need of another handout and implying that every child in Africa is living in squalor. Most of all, I care because I don’t hear many voices from the countries that are going to be using these new computers, only from journalists from western countries.

Let’s talk about the Africa we know
There will continue to be drought, floods, war, corruption and poverty – all of the items that plague many African nations and which are amplified by the media.

However, there will also continue to be a solid majority of Africans who live happy lives without the interference of any aid or development organization. They will live in their village, raise their children, send them to school and teach them from their rich heritage. There will continue to be children growing up in the city who love to learn and would blossom even more with access to technology and information.

If you grew up in Africa, do you think that there is a use for inexpensive computers in schools?

African children in class - why shouldn’t they have access to technology?

See the picture above. Why shouldn’t those children have access to these machines? They aren’t illiterate or under-nourished. How many of us remember this same type of schooling? I do, I was in a primary school very similar to this in Southern Sudan. Why couldn’t any of my classmates become technologically literate with access to the right machines? Why only the relatively affluent white child?

What is Africa anyway, and who decides what’s “right” for each country?
Let’s stop painting Africa with a broad brush. Let’s speak out and remind people that it’s made up of more than just “tribesmen”. That not every country is the same and that there are wealthy, middle class, and yes, even poor people. Let’s stop pretending that Ghana is the same as Ethiopia, or that what applies to Botswana applies to Chad.

Most of all, as people with experience living there, let’s own our part of this debate. Why should one more Westerner be making the case for, or against, a cheap laptop for kids in Africa? I’d rather hear two Africans debate it. I’d rather have a thought leader from some African country step up and make the case for, or against, it.

Just because we grew up listening to others decide what’s right for our countries doesn’t mean we need to continue in that same way.

Try this on for size: as an African, you are more of an expert on what your part of Africa needs than any self-prescribed expert from the west.

59 thoughts on “Will No One Speak for Africa?

  1. Ella Romanos

    Good point Chris, I hope that it does become a success.

    My concern however is that with the limitations it appears to have against other low-cost laptops, it may be hindered from really becoming a big success? And also the fact that other laptops will have potential for futher development, coming out of companies such as Intel or Microsoft, whereas the OLPC does not have this assured continual development/upgrade/maintainance promise?

    That said, it does have some very good points, and I don’t want to sound like I am saying it will fail, just that I’m not convinced either way, and will be interested to see what people make of it, like you said.

    Whatever happens I think it is going to be an interesting learning curve for everyone.

  2. Chris

    Thanks for the insight, Ella.

    What I see as the mistake in your thinking is that “assured continual development/upgrade/maintenance” mustn’t depend upon an external corporation or entity’s indefinite participation.

    The OLPC XO, Classmate or any other device should depend more upon the proper training of host country nationals and the cheap availability of repair parts on a world market so that recipients can adopt the technology in a sustainable manner.

    Otherwise, soon enough, you will have classrooms full of bright green paperweights.

    (See my November blog entries on the OLPC for a longer discussion of this.)

  3. sabina

    I agree with that point of view,but then again our politicians or leaders are busy attending to money and scams that are not helpful to us.

  4. Alexandre

    This comment thread is somewhat reassuring to me. It’s one of the first places I’ve found where thoughtful discussion about the OLPC is allowed. Too bad it took me so long to come to it. But maybe it isn’t too late.

    I’m a French-speaking ethnographer and teacher from Montreal who has been working with Malians involved in hunters associations. Yes, I’m one of those outsiders who does research in/on/with Africa.
    I was originally enthused by the OLPC project. I happen to share several of their goals and approaches. But I’ve grown increasingly worried about the way the project is being handled. To be perfectly honest, it feels as if the XO-1s are being forced on ministers of education in different part of the world with little thought given to the ways the laptops are integrated in local realities. Instead of cultural awareness, some dimensions of the project display an attitude of idealized “cultural neutrality” which, in fact, represents Africa (and “The Rest of the World”) as an amorphous blob of uneducated children. Some parts of this attitude are rather subtle but others aren’t, including statements made by participants in the project.
    Like many others, I happen to think that some tools could make sense in some learning contexts. Personally, I happen to think that cellphones would be more appropriate than laptops in many parts of Africa. But I still wouldn’t want Nokia, Motorola, or Sony Ericsson to push a given cellphone model on African ministers of education, regardless of “location appropriateness” in terms of ruggedness and energy consumption. I cherish human diversity and, at this point, I don’t see the OLPC project as a way to benefit from human diversity.
    In other words, I can relate with some of the stated missions of the original OLPC project but I have deep concerns about the way it is handled at this point in time.
    The reason I think about this so much, these days, is that I’ve been trying out an OLPC XO-1 a friend has received through G1G1. I do agree with everyone who says that “regardless of the tool itself, children will find ways to do neat things with it.” Yet this specific device seems to have been designed with so many assumptions about the world that I think this specific device is the wrong one at the wrong time.
    It does have some really neat features in terms of mesh networking, security, and power consumption in daylight. But, to be honest, it feels like an attempt to shove an inferior product on people who “should consider themselves lucky to get anything at all.”
    While the original OLPC project was allegedly not about technology, the most tangible outcome is a device which seems overrated and oversold. At the same time, the project had valuable outcomes in intangibles like making people think about technology in diverse learning contexts.

  5. summatime

    thank you for showing my young mind yet another perspective on yet another issue in the world.
    on the topic of giving people or children in africa access to cell phones and or computers ,well it doesn’t make a great amount of sense to me.the only thing a human needs to live a fulfilling life is clean water,enough good food to keep a person healthy and strong ,good teachers and elders to help the young to learn about the great big planet that they are placing one foot after the other on,and a sociaty that is excepting and there to help out the sick and old.
    i think that if the bringing of electronics to all people is an attempt to make people feel a sense of equality it should be switched around to the people who have so much access to computers phones tvs ect. should get rid of these electronics that,in my opinion have done more harm than good, and goe back to a more real way of living.

  6. mido

    can i use the pictures published in this article in one of my company’s projects? dont they have a copyright or something like that?

  7. Bonsa

    the first and basic things to be considered for human beings are not…. but food ,shelter and cloth. Many African children are dying there down town of poverty,starvation and crime . The govt and aids cannot fully address it and so without even fulling their stomach is that moral,legal or ethical to talk about providing those children the so called PC. To decide or not it is up to the Africans govts, people and elite generation! rise up ! dare and stand firm before any one. “Africa ever forward never backward” in words of K. Nkrumah .

  8. Pingback: Will No one Speak For Africa! | besime

Comments are closed.