Friday, October 28, 2011

frack it friday: technology

For today’s Frack it Friday, I’m going to ramble on about technology.

Technology in Namibia is pretty interesting. It can be pretty awful. Sometimes we go entire days at the office without our Internet not working, which makes legal research kind of difficult, but it does mean that my supervisor can’t e-mail me more work. Even when the internet is working, it just doesn’t seem to have the capacity to stream video or music, so all you people who keep sending me Youtube links should know that I’m just politely pretending to watch them.

On the other hand, Namibians have grown to be quite ingenuously adept at other things, especially with text messages, which they refer to as SMS. The country seems to have skipped over depending on landline but cell phones are wildly popular here and even young kids use mobiles. And nobody actually calls each other, because sending an SMS is so much easier and cheaper. You can send an SMS to your taxi driver to pick you up. You can send an SMS to recharge your pay-as-you-go phone. Companies will send you coupons and sale deals via SMS. You can enter contests to win prizes with an SMS.

The reason why SMS seems to be so wildly popular with Namibians is that it seems that you can get reception in the most rural areas of Namibia, miles away from gas stations, paved roads, and street lights. Folks living in small shacks who have no TVs or internet are still able to send an SMS to their buddies in the next town over.

Many organizations have wisely taken advantage of the popularity of SMS in their public relations strategy. My own organization has begun utilizing this by setting up an “SMS line” that my coworker Yolande tried to explain to me. Basically, people who need legal help but live way too far away from the nearest legal assistance office can send an SMS to our line, which are all collected on our computer network. Our lawyers and employees then offer assistance by investigating and replying via text message. We get hundreds of text messages a day. It’s quite an ingenuous method of helping out folks who otherwise can’t be reached.

Yolande has combined this technology with radio, which is still often at many farms the only means of hearing the outside world. She hosts a weekly radio show in the Damara-Nama language where she discusses important Namibian issues, including domestic violence and teen pregnancy. There are also public service advertisements played to inform people about their legal right to child support, etc. Damara-Nama people in the most remote areas hear her talk about these issues, and have the opportunity to ask her follow up questions through text messages. Yolande loves it; it gives her a chance to reach out to Damara-Nama people and help them on a scale that would be impossible otherwise. This basically replaces the need for technology like landline telephones and snide blog comments that a lot of these places don’t have the infrastructure to support yet. It’s pretty fascinating to see how a country adjusts to its own needs and capacities, and it just goes to show that technology doesn’t move in a linear fashion everywhere.