It is somewhat of a paradox to talk about information and communication technologies in Africa when many people, particularly in rural areas, don’t even have access to electricity. When you are hungry, the priority is food, meeting basic needs, struggling to survive and not the latest technologies. Most technologies, electronic networks, computers, etc. are far beyond the reach of the majority. This is not to say, however, that these new technologies don’t have a place in Africa. They certainly do, but their application and even potential are still waiting to be defined. What we know is that certain technologies, such as radio and TV, if channelled properly, can and do work in favour of people and it is perhaps on these that we should build our technological base.
In many African villages there is often some information and communication technology, like radio, but again it is often out of reach of the poor. The transition towards larger and better use is not, however, merely a case of increasing access. If a technology is to reach its potential, it needs to be understood. Those wishing to implement or bring information and communication technologies into a community have to have a very clear agenda. If technologies are just droppped into communities, especially in rural areas, they will not take root and their total power will not be attained. The reason, the methodology and the goal of technologies have to be shared and developed in collaboration with the populations. Their adherence is capital. It is not a question of access but rather purpose.
If one is talking about technologies within the setting of the formal school, it seems important that someone captures and filters the power of these modern inventions. Teachers and village elders, for example, are often the custodians of technology. It is they, maybe, who are the most apt to harness, at a first stage, the potential behind information and communication technologies. They have the capacity to hand technology over. This capacity is not, of course, always used. Technologies can also exacerbate frustrations. For example, teachers who don’t master computing skills will necessarily prevent pupils, more eager than they, from using technology. Resistance to change is hard to overcome.
So how can technologies which are beneficial to people be introduced and used to their best? I feel this can happen either through a filtering person such as the village elder or teacher, or more importantly through a sense of relevance. With a solid learning base, a community would be able to feel responsible for their own information, instead of simply receiving it. Their learning base would enable them to translate information into their context, language and needs. This process of assimilation and generation might come when communities create their own information and when they have acquired the means to manage and control their networks of communication.
People who don’t have the necessary learning to filter information are drowned in it. It may be that some master technology without previous learning or education but then to what end will they use it. Learning brings values and this brings us back to the purpose of these technologies. Learning has to be the essential back-up, it is the filtering strength behind information and the motor to transform communication into a positive force. I do feel that schools have a strong role in this process. They can serve as preliminary centres for the appropriation of technologies.
I have two very telling examples of how technology can work in Africa, particularly in my region. As Minister, a woman from the provinces came to see me to complain that her daughter had got pregnant because of her teacher. She said the teacher refused to recognise the child and was behaving badly. I took his name and thought about the whole problem. Later during a government meeting in the Fouta Djallon region, I spoke in the local language, Pular, on radio about the issue of sexual harassment by teachers and male pupils and said that from now on anyone guilty of it would lose their job or be sent away from school. I gave the example of the teacher and said that it was because of fear of sexual harassment that people didn’t send their daughters to school. In the days following that radio intervention, many people from the whole country told me how glad they were that I had broken a taboo and dared to mention sexual harassment, that they now felt more confident about sending their daughters to school and, moreover, the teacher whom I spoke about felt so embarassed to be mentioned in public that he recognised his child and married the girl.
Another example, this time with television, is also particularly revealing of the potential technologies could have in Africa. Whilst at the Ministry of Education, I produced several short TV spots and sketches to promote and encourage girls’ education and I had them broadcast in national languages so those, excluded from conventional schooling, could have a chance of understanding and acting on them. The result was that many educated people, even in my own circle of friends, complained that every time the spots came on TV their maids and domestic staff became glued to the screen and got excited about the possibility of educating their children. One woman even told me she would send her maid out shopping around the time of the spots so she wouldn’t get any strange ideas above her rank! It is technology that brought about such awareness. Suddenly for all these people, the TV became something they could relate to. It was speaking to them, in their tongue, in their way. It was their’s and they replied.
Technology is a double-edged sword, we in Africa can’t accept it wholeheartedly without calling into question many of its pitfalls. For example it is those who know how to use it well who use it to manipulate the poor or keep it to themselves. On the internet, for example, it can vehicle educational messages, helplines, vital information but also racist and socially inacceptable matter. So what is needed, whether it be for Africa, the developing world and other countries, is a sense of purpose. Technology will only be beneficial to mankind if it is used to help bring men and women closer, if it speaks of peace, learning and understanding amongst nations.