Reflections on a year in Arusha

One year ago this week my wife and I set out from London for Tanzania and more specifically Arusha. My plans were vague, but had everything to do with IT and the developing world. A year ago as I boarded the plane for Kilimanjaro International Airport I was a naïve young mbuzi, imagining that I had a lot to teach Tanzania about the internet. I was about to assist an old friend in setting up an internet café which would show those Africans what the internet was about. Of course, on my first wanderings around Arusha I found that our internet café would be one among many – so much for ground breaking.

I discovered that in Tanzania the hurdles that encumber an IT project are rarely technical. Finding and moving into a suitable location took several weeks, exacerbated by the landlord’s reluctance to hand over the keys even after a year’s rent had been forked out. Setting up the network of computers proved a breeze in comparison to the endless wait for Cybernet’s technicians to turn up and connect us. Weeks went by waiting in earnest for our connection. Why couldn’t they just have told us they were out of hardware rather than pretending it would happen today? At least we got to know the inside of our office, and had plenty of time to make sure all our own hardware was working.

On opening I discovered that Tanzanians are well aware of many of the opportunities offered by the Internet, particularly those that require the use of a secluded computer in the corner. Our customers where chatting away on Yahoo Chat and Dar Hot Wire, firing off emails to every corner of the world, looking up the latest malaria treatment information and finding out the details of where those weapons of mass destruction were supposed to be that particular week. What a warm and fuzzy feeling it gave me to feel that I played a part in enabling this. But it wasn’t something brand new in Arusha.

So I turned to another project – setting up an internet connection for a school near Moshi. There it would be something new. It would blow their minds to finally be hooked up to the rest of the world. There would be music like they had never imagined, video links to small towns in Northern England and the latest Hollywood movies downloaded the day they came out in Europe.

Unfortunately my naiveté was met by that of the Europeans who had sent a large consignment of second hand computers to Tanzania some years before. The school had been saddled with obsolete machines which had become cosy nests for mice, and with which I could do nothing. Even if I could have done something, was an internet connection something that school could really use? The cost was certainly a burden it did not need. How long would it take for the benefits of hyper-present communication to affect that school? Progress is now being made with the help and advice of experts in Arusha who have assisted other schools on similar projects in the past. Within a year or two I visualise the school with a well equipped computer room, and staff well on the way to understanding how to use computers in their working day. The next step will be to begin teaching the students how computers can help in their future careers and businesses. At this stage an internet connection might be considered. When planning my missions in Tanzania I had imagined everything would happen at the speed of thought, but the real world isn’t like that. I’d also imagined knowledge and experience needed bringing in from outside, but it is already here!

Looking for another project inspiration hit me – I realised I could share some of my practical knowledge and enthusiasm with a wider community through the magic not of the internet, but by writing for a good old fashioned newspaper. With some trepidation I approached the editor of the Arusha Times with my idea for a story on junk email and practical ways of dealing with it. To my great surprise William was happy to publish the story and the rest is history.

This week my wife and I return to London after a most educating and enjoyable year. We have learnt many things about Tanzania and Africa, and many of our assumptions have been washed away by the refreshing waters of reality. We will
certainly be back in the future – there are so many things we haven’t seen or done. In the IT field, as I have written before, the future is rosy for Tanzania, and I am proud to have been able to document some of the reasons.

Originally published in Arusha Times 305

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