Well, my trip is basically half over. In two and a half weeks, I’ll be on a plane bound for the US. Next Saturday morning, local time, I’ll be on a plane bound for Paris, with a stopover in Casablanca airport, the beginning of the last leg of this journey. I’ll spend 10 days bouncing between Paris, London, Tallinn, Berlin, Geneva and then back to Paris on Feb. 14.
How’s it been going so far? To be honest, pretty rough. I’ve never felt like I’ve struggled with something so completely. Every day that I’ve been here (did I really get here two weeks ago?) I’ve done my best to do interviews as much as I could, to establish connections with people that I didn’t know as well before, and to really, truly, try to understand what the heck the Internet is doing to this country.
What have I gathered so far?
Well, the Internet is surely a bit cheaper since four years ago, the last time I was here. I’ve yet to find a cybercafÃ© in Dakar that is charging more that 350 CFA ($0.70) per hour — most are charging 250 or 300 CFA. By comparison, bus fare is 150 CFA, a newspaper is 100 CFA, a 1.5 L bottle of water is 400 CFA, and a sandwich is 500 CFA. So it’s definitely affordable to a large portion of the population.
Kids here love online dating, YouTube and Skype. Every time I go into a cybercafÃ©, there’s people chatting up members of the opposite sex, both abroad and local. This kid Max, the son of Mamadou Gaye, is in high school and every day I see him here in the CRESP offices chatting up girls and sometimes even initiating video conferences with Senegalese girls who live a few kilometers away. I constantly see kids checking out YouTube (the fact that it’s in English doesn’t stop ’em). Just yesterday I saw about six kids huddled around a computer in the late morning (why aren’t these kids in school?), with one of them typing in “tu pac” into the search box, as a way to try to watch videos of their favorite American rapper.
Olivier Sagna said something pretty interesting the other day, which was that the Internet is so cheap now, that money that kids would have spent on small things like candy or street snacks could spend it on an hour at the cybercafÃ©. Even if kids pool their resources (say, each contributing 100 CFA [$0.20]), they can get online with no problem.
Of course, if you’re a little bit older, your Internet habits change. I met a recent high school graduate at one cybercafÃ©, who was literally typing “Ã©tudier aux usa” (studying in the USA) into Google and was just clicking on whatever university links came up. When I glanced over his shoulder, he was filling out an application to study at SUNY Rockland. Why there? “Because it’s in New York.” He didn’t seem to realize that Suffern, NY is not the same as NY, NY. He said that he used to go a couple of neighborhoods away only a couple of years ago in order to get to the nearest cybercafÃ©.
Then I’ve even talked to some older business types who use the Internet to help them do commerce. One merchant told me that he’s been writing foreign embassies to try to find companies that can help him sell his coconuts abroad. Another told me that he uses the Internet to educate himself about Islam, particularly to ask questions that he wouldn’t feel comfortable asking his imam or his family — such as what sexual positions are permitted in Islam.
Government officials are putting Internet penetration at somewhere between five and ten percent, which is a huge jump from the one percent that I reported in 2003. ADSL connections can now be had at home for 20,000 CFA ($40), on top of your regular phone bill. Not affordable to the majority of the population, to be sure, but notable nonetheless. WiFi, while still pretty rare, does exist in some places. I’ve seen it in a few offices, including the CRESP annex, which is how I get online as frequently as I do.
Jim Delehanty, my the UW-Madison advisor, (whose hotel room floor I slept on two weeks ago) and who has been coming to Senegal for the last 15 years, every year, probably put it best:
“I’m astonished that these hotels have wireless now. Here it works fine from the veranda and not at all from my room on the third floor, but sitting in a sheltered place with a Flag [local beer] and peanuts, typing in QWERTY on my own laptop is a giant step up from the cybercafe (which itself was a an unimaginable leap from two Peace Corps years of snail mail plus the heart-in-the-throat alternative no one wanted, the telegram in the mailbox.)”
Thanks to the CRESP WiFi connection, I’ve been able to do freelance work by interviewing a source in Amsterdam, and have been able to keep in touch with those that I love via Skype on a nearly daily basis. I’ve been able to download episodes of The Daily Show and watch them on my own laptop before I go to bed most days. That astonishes even me.
I spent most of today finishing up a big freelance piece for back home and didn’t get the chance to really take stock of the work that I’ve done so far. I’ll probably do that on Monday or Tuesday, because I’m leaving town for the weekend tomorrow after my interview with Amadou Top. I’m headed north, to visit my old stomping grounds at the UniversitÃ© Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis for about 24 hours, and then eastward to Rosso, where I’ll visit my Internet buddy, Daniel Zhu — currently stationed there as part of the Peace Corps. He says he can get me across the border for one day for about $10. I’ll hang with him for about a day, and then make the four hour trek back to Dakar, arriving in the early evening on Monday, which apparently is a holiday (Islamic New Year).
Then, that’ll leave me with a full 96 hours to hit up a few more cybercafÃ©s, get in a couple more interviews, and go shopping for folks back home. I’ll do my best to get some postcards sent from here (although I may not get to them until I get back to Europe), but if you want one, please email me your postal address.
See you guys when I get back to Dakar.