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Wiring the South: Internet and the developing world

Wireless Networks

by Anamaria Decock
Senior Population Communication Specialist
Communication for Development Branch (SDRS)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

(extracted from "Ceres",The FAO Review, No. 158 - March-April 1996)


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Nadimba is 30. She lives with her seven children in southern Malawi near the Mozambique border. Her husband has migrated to find work on one of the plantations of central Malawi. There is no electricity in her village, no safe water, no telephone. She has taught herself to write her name, but she is not comfortable with reading. On the rare occasions when mobile units have stopped in her village, she has watched a film. If she can, she listens to the family radio, but the radio runs on batteries, and batteries cost money so it is the men who choose the programs.

Like most rural Africans, Nadimba lives outside the global information village. There are no satellite dishes, modems and computers in her world. While urban elites cruise the information highways, the poor and the powerless of rural Africa hike along the same dirt road they have always known.

But still they communicate. Even if global high-tech is a world away and electronic media are beyond their means, rural communities transmit their social and cultural heritage through a communication environment that existed long before sophisticated modern information technologies. African villages have held on to a wealth of indigenous knowledge firmly embedded in the traditional mores and talents of generations past.

Villagers generate and regenerate culture by weaving it into proverbs, rhythms and drum beats. When the crops are in and the pace of life slows, there is time for cults and rites, for ancestor worship and rituals and for fun. Griots, storytellers and troubadours call on the villages. Puppeteers, theatre groups and women dancers perform. Drums pound through the long night. And in doing so they ensure the continuity of their culture.

But can these indigenous means of communication provide Nadimba and so many others in the rural villages of Africa with information that will help them to better meet their basic needs, feed their children, keep their families healthy, control their reproductive health and administer family resources? Can they show Nadimba and other women how to win status and transform their lives from within their own culture? How do traditional communications networks - from mid-wives, healers and chiefs to markets, festivals and ceremonies - fit in with the more orthodox approaches to development communications? Are they the route to grassroots participation, self-reliance and the use of local resources? For a growing number of communication professionals, the answer is: "Yes".

Alternatives to mass media

The so-called folk media first began attracting attention as alternatives or complements to mass media in the 1970s. They have been idolized by populist movements obsessed with a return to roots and demonized by planners and urbanized administrators whose attitudes were shaped by colonial or metropolitan-inspired education. They have been used in family planning campaigns, health care and environment programs, politics and adult education. Communication teams all over the world have tried, with various degrees of sophistication, to tap traditional resources in order to convince farmers of better ways to grow crops, persuade mothers to prepare better-quality food for their children, influence traditional attitudes about family size and change destructive lifestyles.

Experts in modern communications learned from the practitioners of folk media. By the mid-1980s, communication scholars had sharpened their knowledge of traditional media resources. Use of such media to support development programs became more scientific and systematic. Indigenous communication resources can now be adapted to a wide range of development purposes - with full respect for cultural sensitivities and appropriate rituals and in full knowledge of the taboos associated with specific forms of cultural expression, traditional performance and entertainment.

An up-to-date message can be highly effective when transmitted by traditional methods. When a woman performer sings of a wife telling her absent husband, "Let's think it over!" and "We still love you back home," the migrants' camps on the tea estates are silent, the men choke back tears - and two weeks later a regular bus service home is organized. When teenaged singers ask their peers, "Do we eat green corn? Don't we wait for it to ripen before we eat it?" audiences gasp. They get the point. A traditional boys' skiffle band sings to fathers who have become remote, "Even if it is hard, we still love you," and the fathers become more willing to discuss their responsibilities. Comedians bring home the idea of "the mountain is a fish" to audiences that find it hilarious and engage in lively discussion about population growth and ecological imbalances. Puppets acting out irresponsible behavior in conjugal partnerships make men feel uncomfortable but, strangely enough, the men talk to each other about their feelings and later are more disposed to listen to their wives and partners. Because traditional media have their roots in local culture, no one is left indifferent to their messages. They are a familiar part of the villagers' world and use a language understood by all down to the last proverb, analogy and symbol. They make unfamiliar concepts understandable, and they overcome the barriers of illiteracy.

Modern media, often considered by rural populations as alien, elitist and beyond their comprehension, generally lack credibility and therefore cannot reshape cultural traditions. But traditional resources based on indigenous knowledge systems are dynamic and can encompass new experiences. This makes it possible for dancers, puppeteers and storytellers to challenge deeply ingrained culture and traditions, such as the delicate issue of female circumcision.

"Information is not knowledge"

People cannot work together if they do not plan together, and they cannot plan together if they do not share the same knowledge. Information can be disseminated, knowledge cannot. This is at the heart of any participatory process. Folk media contain that common knowledge and involve everyone because such media are everyone's heritage. When traditional media are included in overall multi-media communication programs, the agenda is drawn up by the community, not the planning offices. The process starts with qualitative research into the general concerns, needs and constraints of the local people, their attitudes, behavior and cultural beliefs and their thoughts and feelings on the particular problem.

Then the research findings are sent back not only to the community but to its artists. They are powerful village communicators, who know how to use their talents to sustain a development effort, but if they are to give life to abstract concepts, they need to see the whole picture.

But all of this may change as satellite dishes and the Western lifestyles they project reach rural areas, putting the very existence of indigenous resources to the test. Development is about people, not wires. Human development requires interaction, discussion, dialogue. At the village level, traditional performers are still potent educators. But for how long? Will the great potential of the new forms of communication harmoniously marry the tools and symbols of traditional communication channels or will it bury them?


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