Continuing from my earlier scattering of field notes, in this post, I want to turn my attentions to the rural areas of Uganda and some of the uses of technology I observed. Dubbed the "Pearl of Africa", the country has rich, fertile soil with great potential. Agriculture is a vital component of the economy, and according to Wikipedia, nearly 30% of its exports are coffee alone. Anecdotally speaking, most people I meet in Kampala, the capital, have family ties in rural areas—a reflection of the fact that most of the population is rural.
As with my previous post, my field notes often take the form of Instagram. Although I eventually type up more thorough notes, I find the practice of taking live field notes to be beneficialhttp://www.ictworks.org/news/2011/12/23/avoiding-digital-divide-hype-using-mobile-phones-developmentboth because they allow me to capture my initial thoughts and reactions while they're fresh in my head and because they spark dialogue and conversations with social media friends who get me thinking differently about what I see.
So much of food in rural areas is experienced in bags—stored and shipped in bags, purchased in bags, even sometimes cooked with bags. Known as kaveera, plastic bags are abundant in Uganda. The Uganda High Court recently ruled in favor banning such bags, a trend across East Africa, but it remains to be seen how the ban could be enforced. This is a story of technology but not communications technology. I couldn't help but wonder: what could technology provide that helps balance the twin needs of reducing environmental impact and providing accessible food packaging?
While spending time in Oyam, in northern Uganda, I saw a number of smart phones being used. This Nokia could play videos and music, display ebooks and of course capture photos, but it's not connected to a data plan—nor were most smart phones I encountered in the region. Rather, individuals would find opportunities to access an Internet-enabled computer (most often at a net cafe) in nearby towns that do have the Internet, and they would download materials, which could range from Nigerian comedies dubbed in Luo, the local language, to educational materials about agriculture and business. In this regard, Ugandans used the device more like an iPod... which happened to have phone capabilities.
In rural areas, I tend to rely much more often on my feature phone than on computers and my iPhone. It gives me an appreciation for the disruptive role of mobile phones. Although our driver (whose stereo you might recognize from the previous post) lives in the city, he spends much of his time in the field. But that doesn't stop his business: armed with multiple phones and phone plans, he's developed a 'cocktail of special plans that allow him to make multiple calls at low rates. He keeps his phone charged by his car and whenever we're stopped, he's constantly making calls and conducting business.
Finding a proper charge can be a challenge on the road. Youth visiting Aber Youth Center in Oyam often use the opportunity to top up their batteries. This power strip is connected to an ICT center developed by UNICEF, and the center receives its power via solar cells on the roof. Most feature phones, like the one I purchased in Uganda, have long battery lives. I often didn't need to charge for three or four days at a time, and I got so used to this that I still forget to bring a charger for my iPhone, which burns its battery quickly in a full day of usage.
You'll often hear amongst technology watchers in Uganda that mobile phones outnumber light bulbs in the country. It's a contested statistic, but after a few days on the road, I can believe it. I took this shot at night in northern Uganda. You can't really make it out, but there are dozens of people out and about, making their way through a road side town in the dark.
This is not Kampala but it's another hilly, tech-friendly city you might recognize: San Francisco. Shortly after returning from Kampala, I snuck up to the Bay Area for a conference and returned to a world where my iPhone had a full data plan. Much of Uganda does have 3G mobile Internet, but I opted not to get data, so I could get a better understanding of how the majority of the country utilizes technology. But that doesn't mean I didn't use my phone to navigate: in San Francisco, I could use my iPhone to figure out where I was, call a cab and discover the best places to eat. As I traveled around Uganda, my companions and I used our feature phones to make calls and SMSes to friends and colleagues who helped us understand the area, recommend transportation options and find the best places to eat.
Speaking of which: Chinese food in Uganda! It's not technology-related per se, but I include this image because there are a number of Chinese restaurants in Kampala. Much of the food is taking on a fusion quality, with traditional Ugandan and Chinese flavors that make many dishes unique in the world. The restaurateurs I spoke to source their food locally, only importing food items like crab that grow in nearby countries like Kenya. In this image, our waitress is scooping chow mein into a to-go box. "In Uganda," a friend told me, "we never waste food." With such a bounty of delicious food available, why would you?
An Xiao Mina is an American designer strategist and researcher who recently worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale's Un-Named Design exhibition. She focuses on the role of social media and communications technologies in building communities and empowering individuals. Find her on Twitter here.