Come Bearing Gifts.
by Elsie Eyakuze
Thursday 1st September 2016
This article is the result of my online indignation at Mark Zuckerberg's recent visit to Kenya, where he offered to support various tech related projects... and provide cheap and affordable internet to the poor people of Africa. The online tantrum was a violation of conventions- some Tanzanian blogger had a meltdown over the fact that an American tech billionaire was offering “something good” to my fellow dwellers on the continent of pity. But if India can say no to Mark Zuckerberg, then by jolly goodness so can Africa.
Just a quick note on structural racism: the assumption is that Africa is a poor continent populated by poor people who are simply poor and prostrated by their poverty. We are not supposed to have a past, a dynamic and self-aware present, let alone a future, unless a non-African of means comes along to say so. Because we're poor. But material poverty, much as it has been manufactured over centuries of exploitation, land grabbing, colonialism and slavery, hasn't resulted in poverty of mind, spirit or body. If anything, Africa is emerging with grand vigor at the moment and everyone is trying to jump on that bandwagon. To which I say: nope, not again. This time it has to be on better terms. Our terms.
The Zuckerberg offer for cheap internet in India was tied to giving his company control over the content that his clients would be able to access. There is a lot of literature on 'net control that I can't get into right now for word limit reasons, but please feel free to search on your affordable internet connection about it. Indians are superbly competent in the area of technology as we all know, having been tech-supported by them for the last decade. They looked at these conditions he was proposing and asked him to vacate their online premises thank you very much. Is there poverty in India? You bet. Did they believe for an instant that the Zuckerberg offer was going to make any difference? Nope.
So having observed from them, I feel empowered as an African who uses the internet to resist the offer of good things. I know a scam when I see it, even if my foremothers did not. The bible, the gatling gun, the replacement of local political systems and culture, the imposition of western clothing, taxation as a tool to rob people of their autonomies? Familiar territory to a dying breed of Africanist. I don't reach for the golden ring, I don't thank oppressors for oppressing me economically and I don't want Mark Zuckerberg's drones allegedly providing internet to “poor” Africans. If information is power, you best believe I am going to bring the geopolitical argument into the situation.
On to the numbers: yes, I am part of the economic elite that can afford ridiculous amounts on online presence. But here's what's up in Tanzania at least, and let me quote extensively from an article in the Guardian (Tanzania) about the African Peering and Interconnection Form meeting that recently took place in my city, Dar es Salaam. Ahem. “Tanzania Communications and Regulatory Authority (TCRA) figures show that the number of wireless internet users reached 16.26 million last year” which makes me think that there is more penetration because of shared gadgets- e.g. children who are heavy users don't necessarily get their own simcards. There's roughly 50 million Tanzanians.
Tanzania also has three major competing service providers- Vodacom, Airtel, Tigo- with another one that is challenging the market due to rural penetration - Halotel- as well as a few minor dedicated companies that focus on internet provision like Smile. The market here is hot with competition, and almost nobody uses only a single provider for all services because our gadgets and our markets skew in favor of the consumer. Several providers even provide access to Facebook for “free” with airtime, with one offering a memorable WTF package (Whatsapp, Twitter, Facebook) on the cheap for its customers.
For all the competition we have a playful environment, with marketers intelligent enough to appeal to the masses in most cases. Tigo does this best, Vodacom is woefully inadequate but we forgive them because of their cheap, cheap internets. We price-compare, we have several simcards and we always choose the cheapest option. But most of all, we like the freedom to manage our communications how we want, when we want, as cheaply as possible.
I'm sorry if this essay violates any fantasies you have of Africans being static, open to exploitation, prone to bad decisions every time. Not so much. We're having internal conversation that Zuckerberg has no place in. His version of philanthropy can go shove itself up the same hole in history as the bible, the gatling gun, King Leopold and suchlike. Neocolonialism is real, and it must be resisted, especially in times where everyone demands that the world be painted in the simple colors of black and white.
I fully expect, accept and welcome the failure of this small campaign to keep Big Internet out of Africa. Our political leaders have a bad habit of colluding with the oppressors for their own benefit. I might even be wrong, god forbid, about the extent of Zuckerberg's evilness. But the point remains: there has never been a time when a gift has been offered to Africans that they would not regret accepting. Capitalism does not do gifts. Neither does Mark Zuckerberg. Sometimes saying NO is the best thing you can do for yourself and more importantly for future generations.