Sometimes it’s actually scary how fast news can travel around the world. At a wedding last week (pictured below), the United States’ current foreign policy actions, specifically regarding immigration, were discussed when I mentioned that I was from the US. To be honest, my Gambian friends were more up to date on the happenings in the US than I was. We listen to BBC every afternoon on the radio, and I get updates from time to time on my phone, but news is traveling fast, and the world is watching what’s happening in the US. Every bank in The Gambia has CNN on its TVs, BBC covers worldwide news, and everyone has a cell phone.
So, I wanted to give a breakdown of the mobile technology and other devices in my area:
Yesterday on the way back from the “luumo,” or weekly market, the guy sitting next to me on the gelli-gelli (like a bus, my next blog will be about transportation) added me on Facebook. He’s one of my friends from a village over, so it’s not as creepy as it sounds, but my point is that we were browsing on Facebook while bumping along the dirt road from the luumo back to my village. He said that Facebook has helped him learn English better than school ever did, and helps him connect around the country.
“Yaangi Facebook?” – “Are you on Facebook?”
“Waaw, maangi Facebook.” – “Yes! I am on Facebook.”
Did you know that the CEO of Netflix is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV)? Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, has had meetings with the former Peace Corps director in the hopes of improving Peace Corps’ reach in the field of technology. In an article from the Fall 2016 “WorldView” (National Peace Corps Association – peacecorpsconnect.com), the former senior advisor for mobile and data innovation at the White House, also an RPCV, explains the importance of a “Digital Peace Corps.” “By 2020,” he says, “it’s estimated that there will be 99% cell phone adoption worldwide with 6.1 billion smart phone users. How should the Peace Corps staff up, train, and partner to better leverage and teach tech in the most remote regions of the world?” He goes on to explore the developing world’s leap into the digital age. “Great, tech-powered business ideas can come from anywhere. Lyft, for example, is modeled after the successful ride-pooling in Zimbabwe. Ushahudi – a popular crowd-mapping tool used during domestic disasters – created in Nairobi. One of the most successful mobile money companies, M-Pesa, was not founded in America, but in Kenya.” (I actually met with Safaricom’s M-Pesa innovators in Kenya in 2013).
Mobile technology companies are extremely popular and very successful in The Gambia – you have Africell, QCell, Comium, and Gamcel. We were browsing yesterday on QCell, which is the best in my village, and the SIM that I use in my iPhone for Messenger, Google Hangouts, and WhatsApp in village.
WhatsApp is a new step in technology for The Gambia, as it was blocked by the previous president until his departure in January. You might remember from the Election Day post, that he had the power to cut all mobile companies off during the heat of the election. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Additionally, mobile companies from Senegal such as Orange and Expresso will hopefully be moving into The Gambia, previously blocked by the former President. Since my village is 11K North of the North Bank Road, we’re very close to Senegal. My host sister usually uses Expresso (again for Facebook), and it is faster than any Gambian line. Mobile technology is everywhere and everyone has a phone. We ask every patient at the clinic for a contact number, and they usually ask which network we want to know. People use charcoal to write their phone numbers on the walls of their compound, so if they’re not around you can use the number an call.
Your geographic location determines which network gets the best reception, and since Gambians travel around so much, they usually have 2 or 3 SIM cards. Depending on the area, my Community Health Nurse, for example, will use his QCell Blackberry, Africell Blu phone, or Comium Nokia phone. Sometimes I try all three numbers to see which one he’s using that day. Most phones sold here have a Dual SIM so that the user can switch providers depending on the area. This is not uncommon at all, because all phone companies are pay-as-you-go. So you just get a SIM card and load it with as much credit as you want, and credit is sold everywhere. Bitik (small shop) owners have cards of credit or can send it from their phone to your phone instantly.
In addition to mobile technology, other sorts of devices are used daily in my area. The most important is the solar technology. Our pumps, school, and clinic are all powered by solar panels. Some days the water flows slowly at the beginning of the day because of clouds. People use the clinic and the school to charge their mobiles and laptops. Some compounds, like mine, have a solar panel that gives us electricity at night. There’s always a big crowd gathered around our TV at night, watching anything from Castle to the Senegalese drama Wiri Wiri to even the Avengers, and a steady flow of people coming to charge their mobiles.
Everyone wants to learn more about technology. The OIC (Officer-in-Charge) of the clinic and I have computer classes twice weekly, charting the clinic’s data on Excel and then transferring it to PowerPoint for the Regional Health Team. Once word spread about our classes, several other people have wanted to learn more about their own laptops, and increase their technology skills. The school has a few desktop computers, but the solar isn’t strong enough to power them (an oversight by the international donor of said computers) so we use one of the teacher’s laptops to type up exams and keep data on grades. The teachers especially see the value in technology not just for themselves, if they wanted to further their education, but for their students. “It’s 2017,” one of them told me. “We need to to be teaching computer science and helping these kids to get jobs.”
Quick Updates from previous posts:
From the Agriculture post, my banana tree is still going strong thanks to the help of my host sisters.
From the Food post, this is the most nutritious time of the year. People are harvesting their gardens, and I’ve had several salads for dinner (and sometimes breakfast) lately.