Ziguinchor/Berlin: Digital Divide and International Solidarity

A different type of international youth exchange: a youth center in Berlin and a community center in Senegal use parts from solar panels and short-wave transmitters to provide low-tech internet access for human rights groups.

When talking about the possibilities the internet has to offer, one shouldn’t forget that one third of the world’s population has never held a phone receiver in their hand. There is less internet access in all of Africa than in Manhattan and of the access that does exist, more than a third is in the relatively well-developed Republic of South Africa. Senegal, in the western-most part of the continent, is with two telephones and one internet connection per 1,000 inhabitants, just over the terrible African average. The situation outside of the capital, Dakar, however, make the conditions of the big high-tech North American and Europan cities seem like science-fiction. Ziguin, a city of 140,000 inhabitants and the former home of a teacher from Berlin named Francois Asukaten, is located outside the capital.

For one and a half years now Asukaten has been working in a youth center run by the »Sozialistische Jugend – Die Falken« (Socialist Youth – The Falcons) in Neukölln, a working-class district in Berlin. One of the reasons why so many teenagers like to come to Anton-Schmaus-Haus are the computers with which they can send and receive emails, and play or surf on the internet. René Paulokat, the head of the house, provides advice and technical support and in his spare time, he develops new software tools for the alternative provider, SO36.NET. That may not be anything special but, compared to the situation in Senegal, it’s heaven.

The mud hut of the Carrefour des Arts in Ziguinchor is a meeting place for young people, human rights groups, and artists. Since the center was founded in 1995, exhibitions and literacy courses have taken place here. Many of the people who work here are involved in the democracy movement, struggling for an alternative for the young generation to the common fate of emigration or poverty in a country torn apart by long years of dictatorship, exploitation, and misgovernment. The visitors to the Carrefour des Arts have to share two old 486 computers which nobody can use. Internet access? Unthinkable here. In order for that to happen, Sonatel, the Senegalese Telecom, would have to lay cables and the monopoly doesn’t sell them cheap. For the Carrefour des Arts, which can hardly pay its astronomically high electricity bill, these cables are unattainable.

Asukaten, Paulokat and a couple of youths from Neukölln’s »Die Falken« (who, in the name of international understanding, have traditionally supported the international exchange program) have thought of something that goes far beyond the regular exchange program’s single visit: together with the Carrefour des Arts, they want to establish a direct and long-term path of communication between Berlin and Ziguinchor. The project’s first goal will be to provide the Senegalese exhange parters with the electricity they need and with access to the internet. These are, after all, the prerequisites of the chat and mail exchange the two parters have agreed on.

The parters compensate for a lack of money with imagination and technical know-how. To accomplish their first goal of providing three computers with electricity, solar panels will be installed in front of the People’s Office of the Carrefour des Arts. You might think this would be an obvious solution in a country where there is bright sunshine for 13 and sometimes even 16 hours a day, but where electricity is a precious luxury. Solar energy, however, is almost unknown; the Senegalese government still prefers to increase their foreign debts by importing oil. With Berlin’s help, the activists from Ziguinchor want to make themselves independent of energy prices dictated by the international oil market and domestic despotism.

Once the computers have been provided with electricity, internet access has to be established. To avoid using the expensive service of the Senegalese cable monopoly, Sonatel, SO36.NET in Berlin is experimenting with different forms of wireless transmission. Apart from Wave Local Area Network, a radio-based internal network which is being used more and more often in big office buildings or hospitals, the main technology under consideration is from INSULAR, experimental technology which was developed by a network of alternative IT companies and media projects. As the name proclaims, it allows data to be transmitted via short-wave: »International Networking Systems for Universal Long-distance Advanced Radio«. The principle of the system, designed especially for low-tech regions, sounds relatively simple. Email and website data can be sent in compressed form to a receiving station with the help of a LinuX computer, a special modem, and a short-wave transmitter. There the data packets are decompressed and forwarded on to the internet – and vice versa. INSULAR’s great advantage is that the installation of the entire system costs no more than 5,000 Euro, and it guarantees wireless internet access with theoretically unlimited reach.

But even though if the technology is simple, people still have to learn how to use it. How to install and administer the computer and other equipment will the be focus of both project trips. One of the workshops will take place in Neukölln, the other in Ziguinchor. In addition to working and learning together, time will also be spent addressing political questions. Issues such as technological differences, the right to access, the significance of open source and the advantages of virtual cooperation will be discussed in the Anton-Schmaus-Haus as well as in the Carrefour des Arts.

Obstacles will have be surmounted and difficulties overcome before Ziguinchor and Berlin are really connected. The two partners want to document the process online on their own site. That’s a good idea, considering that Senegal is not the only place affected by global access-apartheid, and that this ambitious project is only one of many, which with wireless networking and low-tech are overcoming it.