Can The Internet Delete Rwanda’s Past?

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 14, 2010 on The Huffington Post. My trip to Rwanda was courtesy of their tourism department, but their hospitality did not encourage any outcome from this essay. 

In the middle of Africa, sitting on Lake Kivu, between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, you’ll find a little island. This happy accident is a place where families established of Congolese and Rwandan refugees have created a unique culture. Behind canopies of pure green, their children pile into a tiny schoolhouse; marching up mud hills without the aid of shoes. Women dance and sell necklaces made out of paper beads to the few visitors brought over by tour boat. It’s both a proud and humble place, and the atmosphere is difficult to explain if you haven’t felt it yourself. However, if you wanted to share these amazing visions with your friends back home, all you would have to do is pull out your iPhone and snap a Twitpic. On top of that hill, across from the modest schoolhouse, in a bright yellow kiosk, you can buy a SIM card to provide Internet to your traveling phone.

MTN is the global telecom responsible for these kiosks, standing out freshly painted, nearly pristine against a muddy green landscape. They sell the SIM cards at just $2 USD each, or about $1100 Rwandan Francs, the monetary system the country has used since it’s 1916 Belgian occupation. This digital super-brand offers services like Mobile TV, games, and prepaid Internet access to over 20 countries, including those across Africa and the Middle East. One of their popular offerings is MobileMoney, providing personal bank account access from “anywhere in the world” via your mobile device. As we speak, they are launching efforts to cast a wider WiFi net, encompassing not only the Rwandan capital of Kigali, but surrounding rural areas.

And they aren’t the only online provider staking claim in Africa’s East. Royal purple banners and storefronts mark the arrival of TiGo, who became Rwanda’s 3rd largest telecom nine months ago. With 31 million subscribers to their parent company, Millicom International Cellular, their service spans across Africa, Central and South America. TiGo’s headquarters lie in Rwanda’s capital.

Growth of mobile gaming and free wifi might seem laughable to those in the Western world, but consider this: 16 years ago Rwanda was a country in total crisis, in the midst of extreme civil war. 20% of the population was slaughtered in the genocide and most of the remaining 80% were responsible. Though conflict was resolved in 1994, technology was not on the menu until 2000, when mobile devices gained popularity in urban areas.

In the 10 years since then, Rwandans have quickly taken control over their access to the World Wide Web, first by welcoming the addition of SEACOM fiber optic cables implanted in their streets. Then, by lobbying for new alternatives to the troubled SEACOM system; homegrown telecom Rwandatel has been tapped to provide extra service in outage areas this year. Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, has been given a co-chair seat of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, to accelerate broadband networks for healthcare and education across Africa. In the capital city, Kigali Wireless Broadband, or WiBro, and Kigali Metropolitan Network, KMN, are working fast to reach service across a range of suburban areas outside of Kigali. While in 2007 only 17% of Rwandans used the Internet, the East African telecom market is expected to reach $9 billion by 2015. For Rwandans it’s more than leisure, it’s a way to control their destiny and move on from a painful past.

When arriving in Kigali International Airport, you’re greeted by three distinct items; an armed guard, a customs agent, and a banner explaining the best route of opening a business in Rwanda. Should you become so excited, you can stop in the Bourbon coffee shop downstairs and take advantage of their free wifi to create your business plan immediately. Far away from the capital, rural Rwandans are finding uses for mobile data and Internet in their own lives. In Gisenyi, a tourism driver is at the scene of an accident. He pays the crowds to keep quiet as he surveys the scene and the motorbike that hit him speeds off. Unshaken, he reaches for his cell phone and pulls up a browser to scan the Internet for information before speaking to police and carrying on with his day. In a field in Volcanoes National Park, surrounded by mountains, a trail of cattle running behind him, John, a smiling teenager, rips a piece of paper out of his back pocket and asks for a pen. His father has died, he tells a group of tourists. His mother is now responsible for making ends meet, and he helps by leading visiting people to the baskets that she weaves, in a small studio, just outside of a hotel colony. He points to the shops location, then scribbles his email address on the paper. It’s the best way to get in touch with him, he says.

The Tourism Department of Rwanda has attached themselves to the slogan “Bridging the Digital Divide.” They use tools like Twitter to locate travel writers and bloggers, and invite them on trips across the country. If getting people to Africa is half the problem, they are, indeed, bridging that divide with microblogging. And it’s by use of the Internet only that a young man from Butare finds his new favorite shop, a New York transplant. Blue Marble Dreams, the non-profit venture of Brooklyn’s Blue Marble ice cream, recently raised enough to build Rwanda’s first ice cream shop. Also in the States, One Laptop per Child plans to build that Internet awareness.

The program has made it a mission to deploy 120,000 laptops to Rwandan school children.

The future looks bright for the advancement of this Third world, and it’s hopes for widespread online access. English has replaced French as the official language, for both political and business reasons. Economic strides have warranted President Kagame awards, as have environmental efforts, such as the conservation of beloved mountain gorillas and the decision to ban plastic bags from the entire country. The national income has experienced extensive growth since coming out of its genocide haze, and continues to expand as a global business force. Of course, not without political backlash and the confusion of a country still fresh with wounds and trying to learn how to trust each other and their government again.

But for all these advancements, there are major problems that even booming telecom cannot solve. Power outages are a common occurrence across even the most established neighborhoods. Rumblings of political abuse still linger in the minds of a people who have a freshly painful past. And how well will Internet be used in villages where walking to a fresh water well is a daily activity? Will the market traders, basket weavers and their families find use for the Internet? Who will show them how to use it?

Back in that field in Volcanoes National Park, John and his friends have crowded around a tourist’s iPhone. Their fingers poke and prod at the screen, almost second nature for children growing up in the digital age. They click open the application Foursquare, the mobile location based service game so wildly popular in the States. There, among a list of New York landmarks and French café’s, they are excited to see that the visitor has also virtually “checked-in” to this field. Their eyes laugh and they clap hands, excited to see that their village, a secluded place surrounded by mountain tops, is among the restaurants and venues of the world, and the Internet has broadcasted its existence.

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