Friday, June 8, 2007

The Dark Internet Cafe on the Dark Continent


The sky is dumping down on the city of Mwanza. I've just arrived and the rain really puts a damper on my long layover.

So, I decide to hail a cab into town and try to find an Internet cafe. Well, that was the easy part. Then the Mwanza Marx brothers routine ensued and now, finally, after an hour, I'm online.

When I arrive, the cafe is dark, but there are about 25 or 30 people milling about in various stages of boredom and distress. The Indian proprietor greets me - clearly trying not to lose my business -- and says cheerfully: 'Karibu, mama. Just one moment -- the power is not working, but the internet is!' He escorts me to the waiting bench and, just as promised, the power comes on in a minute. Then, not 30 seconds later, it goes off again. This repeats about 5 times before the distances between the on and off being to swell. After 20 or so repetitions, I begin to notice the pattern: The owner turns on the circuit breaker, one of the teenage boys who works here turns on the air conditioning, and the power blows again. It takes the owner maybe 30 repetitions to catch on, but when he does, he's FURIOUS. The boy is reprimanded, but another turns up to take his place. As soon as that one is discovered and stopped, then a third employee grabs the remote and presses on.

There was much discussion in Arusha at the TED conference of the challenges Africa as a continent face in getting a working, modern economy which might lift the population out of such dramatic poverty and poor health. First of all, hardly anyone is on the grid and furthermore the grid doesn't work. And, it turns out that aside from South Africa, which is well-wired, there is only one fat internet line running across the top of the continent. When you look at a photo from space, it become obvious how wide the gap is.

My flight to Bukoba leaves in about 2 hours.

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