When then-Vice-President-and-Minister-for-Defence Paul Kagame first mooted the topic of the power of information and computers, hardly anybody took him seriously. To boot, he followed that up with an offer of an army parcel of land for the construction of a new Science and Technology institution.
It was 1996 (if I recall well) and the country was bleeding and still on its deathbed, after the 1994 genocide. Everything was in shambles and yet here was somebody thinking about the luxury of computers!
What was a computer to a naked and hungry villager in Bisesero, remote south-western Rwanda, whether genocide survivor or perpetrator, for instance? I remember a Gerald being rushed in from Tanzania to supplement efforts by Roger, ‘Kadogo’ and Sheja so that they could give us the A-B-C of tinkling with what we thought to be toys.
Of course, those computers that we took for toys have now become indispensable to anybody with the most rudimentary acquaintance with literacy and numeracy. Today we see the sense, yes, but that is we who can read and write, not the deprived of the remote villages, surely?
Unbeknown to us, however, now-President Kagame was talking about an integration of the information and communications technologies, the now-ubiquitous ICTs worldwide. The problem is that, especially today, we immediately think of only computers and the internet, at the mention of ICTs. Yet we in Rwanda should have known better, having been literally destroyed thanks largely to the power of information communication, before the arrival of digital technologies.
We knew the roles played by newspapers, radios, public address systems and, later, telephones and televisions. We should have known that an integration of these and the then-soon-to-arrive digital technologies was going to define the power of the world like never before. And that ‘like never before’ may already be here, with the villager of Rwanda!
That radio that has for eons been glued to the ear of a villager no longer emits messages of hate. Rather, it gives ideas on how to access incomes, education, health, natural resources, employment, land, credit and on how to better use all existing infrastructure. Wherever any of the technologies exist and can be taken advantage of, peasants are given information that helps them participate in the wider society locally, nationally or globally.
Even then, that 1996-vice-presidential message never began to sink in the peasantry as when the mobile phone hit the scene. In Rwanda, if not in Africa, the mobile phone has become an industry. While more than 98% had never been touched by landline phones, today practically every Rwandan has access to mobile phones, with close to 5m handsets (equal to almost half the population) in existence as I write this.
On their handsets, peasants are able to get information on practically everything: agricultural produce prices in different parts of the country, when to plant, weather conditions in coming days, demand for produce on different markets, et al. But it’s not always agriculture for the peasant, nor is he/she always on the receiving end. She/he can call or SMS an ambulance or a health officer, freely interact with government officials or radio announcers and access many other different services.
The villager can also earn an income with the existence of mobile phones, hence the ‘industry’ part. Many are the villagers who make their living by selling airtime, charging mobile batteries or levying a fee for the use of their mobiles. You may think such earnings are small, but think of the villager who sells a small portion of their land to a mobile phone company for the erection of a mast. I can hear you whistle with yearning!
Apart from economic benefits, mobile phones offer such benefits as improved law enforcement, reduced inequality and fast communication during disasters. Come to think of it, what is more bonding for family members or friends than a regular phone call, even it is in the form of what is locally known as a ‘beep’ or ‘flash’? All these benefits – if they can still be called that – are crucial to the villager as much as they are to the highest of the elite in society.
Which takes us back to all the ICTs. Today, who can do without their direct or indirect use? From government institutions to lower departments, large banks to micro-finance companies, revenue income organisations to service delivery companies, who? From presidents, ministers, department heads, health officials, private company owners, educationists, students, parents.
The Knowledge Revolution has come with a universal bang that is likely to turn the politico-socio-cultural world system order – which we have come to associate with divine creation – upside down. Soon we might even see an obscure country rise to world prominence from the dark continent of Africa. The Industrial Revolution never offered us that.
In Rwanda, we can dare punch around that ‘world prominence’ weight. After all, no Super Power boasts a tweeting president, this far!