Internet rickshaw to Dhaka - and back?
By Manfred Ewel
How strange these people are.
How strange I am.
How strange we are.
Have you ever visited Robben Island off the Southern tip of Africa,
the infamous prison island where Nelson Mandela and countless other South African political prisoners were held
during the years of Apartheid? Or are you more interested in listening to the voices of grassroot groups on Radio Bridge Zimbabwe, talking about the struggle for survival of the
common man and woman in Africa?
And if you have never been to the capital of Bangladesh, you definitely should visit the exhibition on rickshaws
and the people using them. As rickshaws lend much to the special character of Dhaka, the photographers and media
designers at DRIK have dedicated one of their virtual exhibitions to them. Your
imagination just has to add the smells, sight and sounds of at least 50 other rickshaws and "baby taxis"
on any busy street of one of the world's most densely populated countries.
Who is using the internet in developing countries?
An increasing number of countries in Africa and Asia are represented on the World Wide Web every day. Even in the
cultural domain, where African elites usually do not spend much money, government supported cultural organisations
like the South African Department of Arts and Culture, commercial advertising
services like Arab Net and independent owners of web sites such as Rootsworld,
the internet pages on African popular music, contribute to the world's knowledge about the cultural diversity of
the continent. Yes, it is true, that the large majority of people in those countries have no access to computers
and the web, and, yes, it is only a small and relatively affluent group of people who are creating and using pages
on the net. But, obviously, they have a desire to be present and connected like millions of others in the rest
of the world.
Who are these people, and how do they live in the all-too-real chaos of a megalopolis in what is anachronistically
still referred to as the "Third World"? Most often, they are young males from middle-class families,
attracted by the modernist image and innovative possibilities of technological gadgets. Like telephones, TV and
video, cassette players and radios, aeroplanes or modern weapons, computers and their applications have been embraced
in non-western societies with open arms and minds. Once they have mastered the necessary jargon in English and
the basic principles of the software applications they can lay their hands on, they also want a connection to the
global store of pictures and products, news and mailing lists.
Of course, their machines are always a generation behind the latest models featured in the computer magazines,
and the software is not always paid for. And, still, the amount of money that is needed for this equipment is equivalent
to what their entire family needs for recurrent expenses in two or three months. If they are not lucky enough to
work for well equipped offices in international organisations or university departments, or the few wealthy private
employers or customers like banks, big hotels and travel agencies, they have to look around for a long time to
be allowed access to an outdated private computer at a friend's house.
Shaheen is a 25 year old multimedia designer with DRIK, one of Dhaka's most successful centres for photography
and internet activities with a strong artistic and social emphasis. "I often work from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.,"
he says, "not because I have so much work every day, but because I love my job and I want to learn more about
creating exciting presentations about my country." He is a good example of the whiz kid with a keen interest
in making himself a name in town for the most innovative technology in mass communication. In Bangladesh, where
the government does not allow any private television or radio stations, it is also a rewarding experience for outspoken
people to be able to publish their views and concerns on a global platform.
People like Shaheen and the growing number of young, bright computer addicts in developing countries have enough
self esteem to communicate with anybody anywhere in the world. They know they belong to the technological avant-garde
of their society and that they are specialising in something most of their older compatriots in a more established
situation know little about. Of course, African and Asian intellectuals who want to stay in business with the private
sector, development agencies or important ministries are using their computer and e-mail software just as effectively
as their western counterparts. But it is the local computer freaks who provide installation, service or training
for them. What they may be lacking in form of a sound academic training, they make up by many hours of trial and
error, and by much cheaper labour costs than in the West.
For most countries in the South, using the internet is a better investment than traditional means of exchanging
Being able to go online, although at higher costs and much slower speeds than in fully industrialised countries,
provides southern web users, too, with the tempting possibility of accessing information from around the globe.
While letters still take three or four days from one neighbourhood to another in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, an e-mail
reaches its destination within minutes. And taking into account the duration and cost of international mail services
to and from Africa, e-mail is a much cheaper and more practical way of exchanging messages. The possibility of
exploring information through the net and sharing this experience with anybody in the world who is connected and
has similar interests is increasing the chances for intellectual growth of people in developing countries in a
much more fundamental way than in the West.
Perennial obstacles such as insects, humidity, lack of trained staff and appropriate equipment are the reasons
why good libraries and archives are rare and much more expensive to maintain in tropical countries than in the
North. Even in the richest countries of the world, libraries are experiencing the limits of their capacity to acquire,
store and retrieve books and magazines. Compared to the budgets for such libraries, the expense for computers and
internet connections is a much sounder investment in the South, and one that is more flexible in the handling of
information as well. The fact that people in developing countries can now do their research or present their findings
anywhere in the virtual world gives them a much better chance to participate in the flow of information and opinions
between north and south. The biased nature of reporting in western mass media about Africa has been criticised
time and again, but CNN and other commercial broadcasting stations have certainly not helped to redress the one-sided
pictures outsiders get of Africa or the Arab world. At least for those who care to look for different sources of
information and to participate in a more egalitarian discourse, this means stronger political opportunities to
speak up and to shape their own ideas about the world from alternative sources.
Life in the southern part of the global village is still different!
The expectations and euphoria that are attributed to the internet have been compared with the often unrealistic
hopes that came along with other technological advances like television or private radio stations. Yes, it is true
that the internet was initially developed for military reasons and is now rapidly becoming a commercial tool for
mass consumption. And like on television, people now gain information and a simplified picture about life in far
away places through the net. There are many who see web users growing together in a global community independent
of their geographical or social environment. People feel close to somebody who seems to have similar ideas and
convictions as themselves without ever having the need or chance to meet them in person. The fact that this person
lives thousands of kilometres away and has grown up in a different culture seems to count little compared to the
virtual kinship they feel for their internet friends.
But just as we know that life in the West is different from the carefully edited pictures in TV programmes and
commercials, life in Dhaka or Dar es Salaam is not what it looks like on your computer screen. And people everywhere
live more complex lives than what they talk about in mailing lists or chat rooms. Especially in developing countries,
reality waits right outside the office or computer room. And when there are power cuts or broken phone lines because
somebody has stolen your phone wire or wants to make money by repairing it for you, your electronic umbilical cord
to the blessed areas of the "civilised world" may be cut off for quite a while! Add to this the violent
political struggles, financial stress, inadequate public services, problems with the extended family or social
restrictions for women or people with no bank account that are typical for so many developing countries. Surrounding
yourself with computers and other concomitants of the rapidly changing western lifestyle of consuming more and
more goods, natural resources and time leads to increasing pressure to make more money. When I asked Shaheen, if
he does not feel isolated and estranged from other Bangladeshis, he simply said: "Well, it is no different
from being a surgeon, lawyer or artist for that matter. You just specialise in something that attracts you, and
you don't mind, if you can't talk to your family or neighbours about it."
© with the author, December 1998
Manfred Ewel was working for intercultural
exchange in the arts and humanities as Director of the German Cultural Centre (Goethe-Institut) in Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania, and as Director of Studies at the Goethe-Institut in Damascus, Syria. He has published articles on Tanzanian
art and culture as well as on German-Tanzanian cultural exchange projects.
His family, friends and other people he corresponds with live in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. The internet
has become a vital daily tool for him, enabling him to maintain frequent and rapid correspondence with his family,
friends and other people and to retrieve information for his personal and professional interests.
"zum Thema:" Nr. 24, 30.12.1998