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This interview with Hon. Johnson Nkuuhe of Uganda took place during the Development Workshop organised in the framework of INET'97, the annual Internet Society conference which was held this year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Honourable Johnson Nkuuhe is a member of the Uganda Parliament.

Internet in post Cold War Africa

Before you stood for parliament were you already concerned with the Internet?

I was working in the university doing research. We got frustrated by teaching and doing research in isolation, so when we saw the opportunity of computers and information, we took it. That is how I got interested. I have been following the evolution of computer technology since the seventies. And when I came to parliament I continued with that interest. Now, in my new role, I need the technology even more because I have to reach many people, I need to encourage involvement. Before I was working in a limited community. Now it is much broader.

With others we formed the Uganda Chapter of the Internet Society. Our main aim was to organise the users, to spread the use of the Internet, to strengthen the few existing users and to increase the critical mass of users through training not only concerning the Internet but computers in general. Our thrust is going to be in educational institutions, teacher training college and business colleges so these have a multiplier effect. I am not happy with the rate at which the use of computers and information technology is growing in our country. I thought it would move faster that it is. Maybe we haven't been aggressive enough. We haven't looked closely enough at the users and the stake holders and the problems that early users met.

Do you think Africa has a specific way of adopting the Internet?

For the Internet to be used meaningfully in Africa there has to be some sort of value added. The language, for example. As the Internet is basically English and more than 80 percent of the people don't speak English, there has to be some value added in terms of translation. Also the Internet has lots and lots of information which can be very frustrating and costly if you don't know what you are looking for. So for the Internet to be able to reach Africa in a meaningful way, somebody will have to add value in selecting appropriate information and assisting users.

When talking of introducing the Internet, the question of whether people can read and write becomes important.

About half of the population in Uganda can't read or write. One reason for this is that there are very many young children in Uganda. The literacy rate is about 50 percent. Among women it is slightly lower. Such figures concern reading local languages. If reading English is taken as the yard stick then the literacy rate drops significantly. And if you take "functional literacy", which I think is the more meaningful measure, then the figure is even lower.

One wonders what the significance of introducing the Internet is, when so many people are unable to use it.

A lot of technologies come into Africa like that. It is not that Europe or America are introducing them, it is people from Uganda who have been to the West and then brought back the idea with them. We have cars, for example, but when you see the state of some of the roads the idea of using cars is not very meaningful. But we still have them. We have aeroplanes, but very, very few people use them. A lot of technologies in Africa are for very few people. That is a big problem. The challenge to national governments is to bring the population to a level where it can benefit from a lot of these modern technologies. Right now those technologies are just for an elite.

What do you think of the idea of the Internet as a "community tool"?

Computers in the Western world are "personal" computers: one person, one terminal. In the African context, it would help to have a community tool whereby an expert or a few experts use it so others in the community can also benefit from it. Right now in Uganda, many people who want to send messages for funerals, weddings, family announcements and so on, have to travel about 50 kilometres to the district town. They write the message which they give to the post office and somebody phones. If there was a community facility using the Internet, they could explain their problem to whoever is using the equipment and this person would put it in a form that can be transmitted.

Having an expert in the community playing such a key role, is that not likely to challenge the authority of the elders?

It depends what the tool is being used for. There are many things that the community does: they build roads together, they dig wells together,... If the tool comes as one of those activities, then it won't challenge the authority.

In Western society we don't have elders. However, having knowledge can be a source of social status. Yet, in the community you describe, it would seem that somebody who knew how to read and write and how to use the machines would not necessarily be seen as different from the others or having a special status.

There may be many people who can read and write, but as such the community doesn't read that much. There are not many books and only one newspaper written in the local language. It is not a reading community. However, information reaches us in many forms including verbally like in acting, and telling stories. That is where the Internet and especially multimedia will be very useful. The reading and writing are there, but they are in conjunction with seeing and talking. That will be very beneficial to communities where the majority don't necessarily read or write.

There is much concern in the community about culture. So if somebody at a national level were to make an effort into putting content on the Internet about our culture, then people could identify with it. That's why TV is very popular at a community level. People see others on TV speaking their own language. But if the content is abstract then the community may not immediately see the benefits.

What action is the government taking about this in your country?

In my country the problem is that the Internet is so new. We have been trying to push for awareness. As a member of parliament, I organised a demonstration for fellow members of parliament to explain what the Internet is, what the benefits are,... Many were not at all aware what it was. Those who were aware were very good, some even have Internet in their homes. Once the awareness has been built both at a policy level and in educational institutions, then it can penetrate the communities. The communities, the rural villages will be the last to be penetrated. But then this technology moves very quickly ... With education it is easier to take it to the communities.

There would seem to be a hidden geography in telecommunications and in trade that bind certain African countries to specific countries outside Africa. Is inter-African trade and exchange seen as a priority by the Ugandan government?

Trade is clearly a priority, but I am not sure that those in government see the relationship between the flow of information and trade. There are many examples of neighbouring communities in different countries where it is quicker to send a message by bicycle that by telephone. A lot of planners think of the roads first and the telephones a number of years later. We've had a hard time convincing people that communication is not only roads.

Is there a political will between countries to exchange?

If they are politically on good terms, but that is very rare in a lot of countries, ... Uganda has very good relations with most of its neighbours but there are no roads. Talks are currently going on about establishing a road network and there are some trade organisations which are mainly on paper. We just wish they would put them into practice. The major reason for failure to create such roads and telecommunications is said to be finance. But in addition to finance, it is also a question of lack of planning, political disagreements and lack of democracy in some instances. In the last ten years, many countries have tried to really get things done, but they have been hampered by finance. They are greatly indebted to Western financial institutions and can't pay their debt.

Is it possible that the financial debt of today will be replaced by a knowledge debt in the future?

I don't know how that would work out. The debt is definitely a big thing. People say we are one global village, but if were are to be a global village then all the villagers have to have access to a reasonable standard of living otherwise it will be a very, very hostile village. With globalisation, that worries a lot of people. The Internet will facilitate globalisation further and faster than anybody ever thought. So we really have top reorient our thinking as physical borders are becoming more and more meaningless. Borders used to be the places where you could control the entry of certain things but information goes through the borders without you even knowing. Now trade can move without people having to move

Most of our thinking has been shaped by the Cold War. A lot of people haven't moved on from there. I think it may take 20 years before the impact of the end of the Cold War has its effect and the relationships between countries take a new shape. Then we will be able to see trade and the relationship between countries as a new driving force rather than through fear of communism...

In fact, much of the division in Africa seems to be the result of attitudes which belong elsewhere.

That is right. Most people didn't even understand the Cold War which resulted in us getting bad governments supported from elsewhere on the basis of political and economic interests. And the people in the country, who didn't know what it was about, suffered as a result. The impact of that support to Washington or Moscow to the extent that it hurt the economy and the people will take at least a generation or two to repair.

Interview by Alan McCluskey, Kuala Lumpur.

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Created: June 21st, 1997 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 1997