Burroughs Adding Machine

Social justice, arts and politics, life in New York City

The Abundance (and Conundrum) of Cell Phones in Africa

Sure, your phone’s useful in finding a mutual time and place to meet your friend for drinks. But what kind of a difference can a cell phone make in Niger?

Jenny C. Aker and Isaac M. Mbiti provide a pertinent anecdote in their article entitled “Africa Calling” in the most recent issue of The Boston Review. For one businessman in Niger, the introduction of a cellular network seven years ago was life-changing:

Before the tower was built, he had to travel several hours to the nearest markets via a communal taxi to buy millet or meet potential customers, and he never knew whether the person he wanted to see would be there. Now he uses his mobile phone to find the best price, communicate with buyers, and place orders.

Aker and Mbiti go beyond just providing statistics, though. As the authors note, the iconic image of the African phone user is a woman using the cell phone as a tool for improving trade in her local market. But, the authors, ask, does this image correlate to reality? In a nation like Niger–where 85% of the population lives on less than $2 per day–more than 60% have mobile phones. What are the implications for Western businesses that choose to invest in telecommunications rather than infrastructure, microfinance, or even direct aid?

I, too, have noticed the abundance (and everyday reliance) of cell phone networks, whether travelling in sub-Saharan or western Africa. It’s striking how extensive the reach of these companies has become: entire buildings are painted (free of cost for the business) in the vivid colors of a cell phone network as advertising; local markets sell SIM cards that retain user information, while eliminating the need for actually owning a phone (some individuals share a phone to save money).

Though the argument hints of paternalism (is it the West’s right to make such judgements on how–and how much–poor African nations should spend on these networks?), the question still feels somehow worth pondering. Access to information such as price comparison for millet, for example, has affected the economy as a whole; cell phones have aided in civic stability, such as “voter-education and registration campaigns and citizen-based monitoring.”

As Aker and Mbiti posit in this reasoned analysis of cell phone usage in Africa, “Can mobile phones transform the lives of the poor?” It’s a tough question to answer.

Filed under: africa, technology, , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Women in Uganda

Photos: Esther Havens

Do you take drinking water for granted?

There’s some interesting charitable work in Uganda organized by a non-profit called “Charity: Water” that I just learned about. I caught one of their PSA’s on the Internet the other day, and what interested me was the way it imagined a scenario in which Westerners had to obtain potable water like millions in developing nations: with a yellow water jug, carried across city blocks, traffic, miles–each and every day.

The PSA shows Western families and businesspeople dragging the ubiquitious yellow jugs that you see everywhere in Uganda and Rwanda through the streets of a city like New York. Equally shocking is the dirty water poured into a clean glass at the table of one of these privileged families.

1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water.

Charity: Water’s blog captures much of their daily work, now in Haiti, but one of my favorite posts celebrates the women in northern Uganda who are managing their own water well (over there, it’s called a “bore hole”). I love the way that these photos by the photographer Esther Havens captures the joy and power of these women.

Especially appropriate given it’s International Women’s Month.

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Filed under: global justice, water, , , , , ,

Distributing Condoms in NY; Attacking Gays in Kenya

Two articles of note:

  • Troubling news from Kenya: In Mtwapa town in Kilifi district, two gay men were literally attacked in their home. Their plans for a wedding instilled fear and panic in the community; the police had to intervene, stopping “hundreds of angry youth baying for blood.”

Filed under: gay rights, health, , , , , , , ,

Flashback: President Obama Visits Ghana

I’m feeling sentimental. Or is it that I’ve just agreed to join another group of undergrads travelling to the continent of Africa this summer? As they say, third time’s a charm.

This video is a flashback to President Obama’s trip to Ghana last July. I’d never seen it before. I love the horns that open the video, playing under Obama’s welcoming speech to Ghanians.

“I have come here to Ghana, for a simple reason,” Obama remarks. “The 21st Century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome, or Moscow, or Washington. But by what happens in Accra as well. Africa’s future is up to Africans.”A far cry from the colonial legacy of the past.

One of my most memorable images from my recent visit to Uganda was a thin necklace worn by one of the orphans that we spent time with in Kiwanga. It was made of a series of dark beads, with a small rectangular tile as the centerpiece. Religious jewelry? Actually, a photograph of Barack Obama adorning his neck. A sign of Obama’s impact around the globe.

It’s also a reminder that President Obama–despite occasional stumbles and criticism (including from me, in a recent post criticizing his policies on DADT)–can be a rock star once he hits his stride. He’s certainly been in top form over the past few days; on Friday, he stepped up to the plate and directly addressed the GOP leadership (on their own playing field, nonetheless) at a Republican retreat in Baltimore. Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Chris Matthews had a great recap of Obama’s head-to-head with the Republican leadership that’s worth checking out. I love the moment when Maddow acknowledges the Q&A could be either: a.) disastrous, or b.) worth taking out the popcorn.

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Filed under: africa, obama, politics, , , , ,

Two Takes on Promiscuity

I’ve been reading the thoughtful, non-puritanical writing of Dan Savage for years now, both in his weekly sex-advice column “Savage Love” and in his nonfiction books like Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America (2002).

What I admire about Savage is his reasoned, articulate (albeit polemical) perspective on gay politics, sexuality, and morality. In the clip below, he responds to an audience member’s question, “How many partners is too many?”

Savage’s thoughts on promiscuity catches my interest because it aligns with some other thinking I’ve been doing on promiscuity in other cultures, namely in Africa. I’m just begun to advise a solidarity trip to Uganda with twelve B.C. undergraduates, and one of the books we will be reading is Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure. Though many have chimed in on public health policy in African countries, Epstein argues that most Westerners approach HIV/AIDS in Africa as a problem to be solved: through abstinence, or condom use, or better sexual health education.

However, in The Invisible Cure, Epstein argues for a paradigm shift: an empathetic approach to Afrocentric solutions to health crises, and a challenge to understand a way of life foreign to Westerners: a culture, in some African countries, in which a man may have several wives or sexual partners. Here is an interview with Epstein on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, as well as her understanding of promiscuity in this culture:

Promiscuity. In the U.S., we discuss sex and sexuality most often through a moral lens. Are we sex-positive? What should be allowed and forbidden? How do we achieve gay rights and breakdown a heteronormative society?

In African nations like Uganda, we discuss sex through a lens of public health. How do we reduce the HIV/AIDS crisis? What is the best method of prevention? Who is being infected, and how is the disease transmitted?

Hard to get out of a Western mindset, but always food for thought.

Filed under: africa, health, , , , , , , , ,

Writing

BIOGRAPHY

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
» "Pinays," AGNI, Spring 2016
» "Dandy," Post Road, Spring 2015
» "Wrestlers," Fifth Wednesday, Spring 2014
» "Babies," Joyland, August 2011
» "Nicolette and Maribel," BostonNow, May 2007
» "The Rice Bowl," Memorious, March 2005
» "The Rules of the Game," Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, June 2003)
» "Deaf Mute," Growing Up Filipino (Philippine American Literary House, April 2003)
» "Good Men ," Genre, April 2003
» "The Foley Artist," Drunken Boat, April 2002
» "Squatters," Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America (Asian Am. Writers' Workshop, 2001)
» "Deaf Mute," The North American Review, Jan 2001
» "The First Lady of Our Filipino Nation," The Boston Phoenix, 1999
» "Paper Route," Flyway Literary Review, 1996
» "Brainy Smurf and the Council Bluffs Pride Parade," Generation Q (Alyson, 1996)
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Pics from Africa 2010

No food for lazy man

Mao and Du Bois

Inside W.E.B. DuBois' library

Commemorating the great pan-African writer

African drumming and dance

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About Me

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About Me

Ricco Villanueva Siasoco is a Manhattan-based writer and non-profit manager. More

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