Ghana was the first place I sent emails for work, from Nina Chachu’s British Council office. It was a couple of years later before I sent personal messages out. But here in Mauritania, underneath the apartments was an Internet café. Each evening, Judith who was an expectant grandmother, would head down there, get a little slip of paper with a password on it and get typing away. There was a bank of about ten machines and mainly young teenagers were typing away on chatrooms and bulletin boards like kids across the world. A few were doing research through the search machines. Judith would get on her hotmail account in a few seconds and read her messages. Typing was a problem. Although the keyboard had the English QWERTY layout, it was connected to the computer using the French system. About a third of the letters are in different positions on their keyboards and so when she typed a Q she got an A. I would sit next to her, waiting so we could go to dinner and be sniggering away at her attempts at being coherent.
This was development in its truest form, a technology that not only had transferred quickly to the African world (in 1995 even I was amongst the sceptics who thought it would be another ten years before email hit it off), but had become such an enabler to a new generation. Communication had been disastrously poor in Africa for so many years, but the connection of the Internet had made it work at almost the same speed as the rest of the world.
Computers themselves had been a relatively novel idea in Africa when I first started travelling there. I remember walking in on the Technical Contractors working for DFID in long term posts and seeing a gleaming IBM 286 with this amazing new package called Windows on it that meant you did not have to type every command in from scratch. In the whole outfit that worker was in, it would be the only computer. The boss had nothing like that – if he needed typing done there was a secretary in the corner of the room or behind a door that could type out any dictate on an old Remington. Memos were hand written. Data were stored on large logs bound in leather, growing dusty and brown with age and susceptible to any local termites. Calendars were on desks or on walls. Pictures and files were stored in huge filing cabinets. Most of all in those offices in Africa, the rooms were almost always Spartan and sometimes near empty. A desk with a drawer would sit in the middle, a couple of wooden chairs were around, a picture of a president on a wall and the odd map crumbling away to join the dust. A white shiny box that hummed was completely out of place here.
On so many projects, I would have to install a computer when I arrived. Most of my time waiting to go on a trip was waiting to confirm that a machine shipped from UK had arrived in the country and had cleared the weighty bureaucracy. When I got there I would usually be knee deep in plastic bags and polystyrene trying to fix wire A in socket B and plug X3 into gap N34, making sure that it did not get twisted with part N33 (usually an odd shaped piece of plastic that looked best suited for garrotting a chicken) and so on. It was always the most nervous part of a trip. If the machine had become damaged in transit, or something had been missed off the order, then the rest of the trip could be completely screwed. In Ghana, the two machines were left in an open-sided customs shed at Accra airport, which meant that during the heavy rainstorms of the two weeks before my arrival, the cardboard container had more or less disintegrated. Despite the fact the computer itself was sealed in plastic bags, some damp had seeped in and I had great difficulty making those terminal s boot up properly all the time I was there. Once the machine worked, I had to load all the software I had brought with me and the data. The first machines I worked on overseas had no CD driver and I had to spend hour after hour dumping large zipped up files on floppy disk over to the machine. When CD’s came along, the data could be transferred in one go, as long as the CD had written properly at the other end and the machine was compatible with the type of CD I was using. The pitfalls were endless and I was never completely happy until the application I had written showed up on the screen in a similar way to how it had appeared in the UK. I always scheduled two days when setting up machines. People were amazed, and indeed it was no problem if the machine was assembled without a hitch – it took nor more than two hours. But if there was a glitch, I could spend days trying to get things going, and when you are only on a short term trip it is extremely difficult to justify big chunks of time to being an amateur electrician. The fear stemmed from the fact that if there was anything seriously wrong with the machine, there was no way of fixing it. For many years, for one set of software, the local representative was based in Cairo; great if you were in Harare. There was no such thing as a computer repair shop and even if there was, it was no guarantee that they could repair the workshop. There is always that anxiety that if you went up to the store to fix a memory problem, you would see a man walk across to your beloved box with a welding tool.
Which is why it was amazing when I was in Mauritania that there was a computer workshop. When we had a problem with the machine (some noxious electrical smoke came out of the modem when we tried to connect it to the Internet), we just drove to the centre of the city and were able to fix it. A rather smart shop frontage had all the paper, printers boxes and razzmatazz that you could find in a computer superstore back home. Ba had friends in this company, so we were taken through to the workshop behind. In a dimly lit room, with the slightest of air conditioning and no dust control, computers were being opened up all over the place. There were pieces of memory, hard disk, fans and half opened keyboards all over the place. Ba’s friend took our machine and roughly opened it up and took a good look at the modem. He could see no problem and he booted it up, plugged in a bit of Ethernet cable and was able to show a website up on the screen. So at least we knew it was not a hardware problem. He sorted us out with new numbers to plug in for setting up and closed the machine up. We were back in the office within two hours.