Thursday, May 13, 2010


We completed our work in Nakuru during twenty four hours without power and another long outage the following day. Once I got used to finding my way around my room in the dark, I appreciated some of the advantages. The stars were brilliant and plentiful at 4:00 am when I decided to step outside. Candlelight dinner was romantic. Those who came with LCD lights on bands round their foreheads looked funny. We functioned well. It was only after a day that things became challenging. The batteries on our laptops and mobile phones ran down. Some of us had documents on our computers that we needed to refer to. If the outage had been much longer I think anxiety would really have risen.

Many countries that had no extensive infrastructure of telephone lines have leaped from no phones to mobile telephony. Places like Kenya where there isn’t a robust system of broadband are using mobile phone technology for computing. So while my office in Philadelphia is plugged into a system of cables, and my home has wireless courtesy of a fibre optic cable laid by the phone company, the Africa Section’s computer uses Safaricom, with a dongle/mobile-modem/USB stick. These use mobile phone SIM cards.

Everywhere, in the tiniest villages, there are signs on stores advertising mobile phone top-ups. Several of our group bought pay-as-you-go dongles so they can reach the internet in places where there is no wireless signal. I am in the process of inventing new words and phrases. Since the noun is a dongle, how about the verb to dongle? Meaning to insert the dongle into the computer. And now I have invented the ministry of dongleology – the kindness of lending your dongle to another (thank you, Liz) so that he or she can check urgent emails, or post a blog?

But here’s another dimension of life here when organizing events. What happens when the power goes out for a very long time, as it did for us in Nakuru, and our mobile phones and laptops go into hibernation because they have completely run out of battery power? That’s when we get anxious. How will we do simultaneous interpretation without electricity? Perhaps we can just speak in tongues. Or perhaps we rediscover singing and chatting together, and let the work wait for another time. It can be pleasant – but it keeps it very local. It doesn’t make it possible for me, on one continent, to communicate with you on another, while I am actually here. And I am really enjoying doing that.

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