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Slaves of the Internet: in some parts of Africa, the Internet behaves like a beautiful woman with whom one works in the office but whose moods one can never gauge correctly.

Is the Internet our slave or are we the slaves of the Internet? At first reading, this question might make you ask, "but what sort of question is this? Of course the Internet is our slave! What can we do these days without using the Internet? It is our modern-day messenger, carrying our thoughts far and wide. It is our matchmaker, which tells our would-be paramours things we would never dare to tell them face to face. In many cases, it is even our source of income."


I agree with all of that. Especially the bit about the source of income. I remember with bitterness that the only reason why I did not become quite well-to-do when I was plying my trade of journalism in Ghana, was that the telephone and telex systems were crap. I was working mainly for the overseas media, and it was heartbreaking to research a story, conduct interviews to stand the story up, and then sit down to write it, only to find that the next step led nowhere!

This next step was in fact the most dangerous, for with deadlines in mind, every time one got into one's car on the way to the Telex Office, the temptation was to drive as fast as possible towards the destination. The place was actually called the "Cable Office" [from its "Cable and Wireless" days of the colonial period] and was situated at High Street in Accra. It changed names and became the External Telecommunications Department, then ET Service, until I lost count.

But to me and many others it always remained the "Cable Office". From there, my news items were supposed to be transmitted to a newspaper or radio station abroad. I handed one in and a telex operator punched it into a perforated tape and then dialled a telex number abroad. If everything was working well, one heard a sweet sound from the telex machine--a rhythmic kah-kah-kah-kah-kah-kah! with a krrrr-clang when the machine reached the end of a line. As it sang away, one went home and took a nice, cold sip of beer. One's job was done.

But when it was a bad day, the telex operators would dial the number and dial and dial and dial and not get it. When they got it, the message refused to go! There was nothing to do but leave it with them and go home and hope that better conditions would prevail "later". This "later" could be anything up to three days!!

When adequate time had elapsed and one arrived back at the Cable Office with a new story, the first thing one did was to steal a glance at the telex machine. If there were bundles of rolled tapes with identification marks on them lying next to the machine, then one knew that one had worked in vain. The story over which one had sweated so much had not been transmitted. It had therefore died. "The lines are cycling" one would be casually told, if one was brave enough to resort to making furtive enquiries.

Why "furtive enquiries"? I hear you ask. Furtive enquiries because the Cable Office was swarming with government spies, [under both military and civilian regimes alike!) who would alert the authorities to any news which a correspondent seemed rather eager to send to the foreign media. In my case, it was particularly unpleasant, for my main line was with the BBC, and I often reported on things which the government of Ghana kept from its own people. In one instance, I so annoyed the head of security that he got the Information Secretary to write to warn me that if I didn't stop sending stories which made the government "look bad", I would be refused the use of facilities provided by the Cable Office altogether!

I believe that is a first in the history of Ghana. Censorship did occur under many regimes, yes, but an outright ban from the use of the Cable Office? I could have asked with Balotelli: "Why only me"? So, cool was the order of the day. One tucked the new story one wished to send under one's arm and waited until the unsent one had gone before one made another attempt. Now, the sad thing was that in their wisdom, some media operators often did not pay for a story that they hadn't used. You worked on the story for five days and it arrived late? Tough. In the news business, nobody gives a damn about old news. So if the Cable Office delayed one's story, one did not get paid. The Cable Office therefore literally held the "strings" to one's purse: no story, no pay, and no pay, nothing to eat. Yet, if one's story was not transmitted, there was nothing one could do. Sue the Cable Office? Forget it! Try suing a government department in an African country!! No.

One just rolled back home with a heavy groan that sank one's heart lower and lower towards the area below one's belt-a groan from a deep pain which could only be partially expiated with loads of cold beer. And perhaps some good jazz music. If you have read Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel, Scoop, you will have noticed that many of the foreign correspondents satirised in the novel were fond of a "tipple". They didn't get to be that fond of drink overnight, I assure you. (Not that some would not have become drunks even if the conditions under which they worked were perfect.)


As far as I am concerned, the Cable Office in Accra owes me an apology for any display of short temper I used to inflict on members of my blessed family. They didn't quite realise that under my tough exterior, I was being rocked hard and fast by forces that I could not control. Forces that filled me with an anger and frustration and disgust that I tried to dissipate without making it show too much. Today's correspondents, on the other hand, are able to press SEND and have their stories land at their editors' desks within a second. How I envy them! That is what the Internet has done for us.

But in some parts of Africa, the Internet behaves like a beautiful woman with whom one works in the office but whose moods one can never gauge correctly. One moment she's flashing one a nice smile. The next, she's fuming at one for no reason one can think of.

In one country where MTN is very strong, I was not able to enter my Yahoo account for almost 24 hours, The network account to which I was given access was so slow that I was forced to abandon it and go to an internet cafe. The problem was the same there. In a bid to "help" me connect, the operator of the cafe asked me to write down my password! Without being offensive, I refused, saying: "I am under strict instructions never to let anyone see my password." Now, you see how "419" works on the Internet? You get frustrated by a slow service; you are offered 'help', and then, before you know it, others are using your account to send out mail in your name, making financial demands from people in your address book! Or worse, they are sending out letters from "you" saying that they are the wife or girl friend of a dictator who has just died, leaving them a box of foreign currency, which they need to deposit abroad. They, however, need a foreign bank account and could someone please help them--for a ten million dollar share of the booty as a reward? Because email is so easy to use and unsurpassed as means of communication--especially now that video and telephony have been incorporated into it--the denial of its use throws many of us into utter panic!

Withdrawal symptoms of email failure include broodiness, rudeness, and sheer neurosis. Has someone managed to enter one's account because of the many fruitless attempts one has made to enter it? Have they locked one out of one's own account? Yahoo, in particular, makes its accounts difficult to enter with a slow line, because its email service is overloaded with a huge amount of advertising. Yahoo should have pity on its users and offer them an option on the log-in page which says, "Tick this box if you have a slow line!" As the case is, you now only receive a notice to download the "basic" service after you have tried in vain for scores of valuable minutes trying to log in. But the greater responsibility lies with Africa's regulatory authorities. The Internet fetches telecommunications companies a great deal of money, and, of course, many would much rather keep the money than use some of it to improve their services. The inventors of the Internet made its infrastructure free for companies to build upon, but the companies have not reciprocated the generosity of spirit of the inventors. Our governments therefore need to pressurise the server companies in particular to improve their work, or be driven out. Many companies have signed long-term contracts with public bodies which give them lucrative returns, whether the services provided are up to scratch or not. They know whom to influence to get a foot in the door to operate without fear of punishment when the services fall below expectations.

Governments should encourage the formation of Internet Users' Associations, which can countermand any corrupt decisions taken by the regulators. Certainly, citizens must exert maximum pressure on the existing regulatory authorities to make sure that the companies offer the best services possible. The alleged effect of competition between different operators does not work, if and when corruption enables false returns on performance to be filed.
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Title Annotation:Under the Neem Tree
Author:Duodu, Cameron
Publication:New African
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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