Not far from the closely packed mud huts of Pabo camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Northern Uganda, the Catholic parish office lights up like a beacon in the inky night of this war-torn area; the region has never had electricity.
Last year, the Pabo diocese used a wireless internet connection provided by an NGO called Battery Operated System for Community Outreach (BOSCO) to apply for a $40,000 grant for solar panels. Now the health center has an internet phone they can use to call free anywhere in the world, and students at Pabo secondary school are sharing stories of abduction and war on personal blogs.
The 1.5 million people displaced into overcrowded camps by the 22-year old war against the Lord’s Resistance Army were once called by Jan Egeland, former UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, "the biggest forgotten and neglected humanitarian emergency in the world." So internet access seems like a strange panacea for people suffering from malnutrition, disease and lack of clean drinking water.
Father Joe, the jovial and stout pastor of Gulu archdiocese, remembers when an American pastor from Indiana first offered to help him bring wireless internet to some of the IDP camps through the BOSCO program. "At first I thought it was stupid to bring internet to people who first needed water," said Father Jo, "But, how do you know people lack water until they can tell you?"
20 Years Ahead
Founded a year ago, BOSCO has installed wireless networks in seven IDP camps around the Gulu district in Northern Uganda. Health centers, dioceses and schools have been equipped with internet connections and phones facilitating free communication world-wide.
"At first we did not know how to catch up with our neighbors to the South," said Father Joe, "But this technology is shooting us from 20 years behind to 20 years ahead in development." BOSCO aims to eventually bring wireless internet coverage to the 28,000 square kilometers that make up Northern Uganda.
Kevin Bailey, a recent graduate in theology and an American volunteer, says BOSCO has the potential to "break the pattern of total dependency on international NGOs so prevalent over the past 20 years." Members of the seven communities have begun drafting and submitting proposals for clean water, solar power, electricity, and school supplies.
Father Joe says a recent outbreak of Hepatitis E in a camp near Southern Sudan was pre-empted after health workers read online reports and took recommended measures. Students at internet-equipped schools are sharing stories of the war with relatives in Australia through OXFAM’s online Refugee Relatives program.
Some use the internet-connected phone, which uses a technology called "voice-over-IP" that allows free calls to anywhere in the world, to stay in touch with Ugandan relatives abroad and sometimes to have money wired home. News and weather websites are also popular with BOSCO’s users, who marvel at the fact that both local and foreign newspapers can be beamed into their isolated communities.
The ingeniousness of BOSCO is that it can work virtually anywhere the sun shines. Previous efforts to bring computers and internet to Africa, such as the many NGOs shipping secondhand PCs to the continent, have floundered due to a major stumbling block: the lack of power in rural areas.
The system BOSCO uses is cheap, sustainable and energy efficient. A small antenna connects the Gulu archdiocese wireless network to a TV tower that transmits up to 50 km away. Cheap antennas installed at every camp connect to energy-efficient computers, made by a company called Inveneo, that use only 10 percent of the energy of a normal computer. The entire setup is powered by a 2×2′ solar cell and a battery with a lifetime of up to 10 years. After installation, the total cost of operations amounts to $10 every three months.
Only the Beginning
Charles Okumu, 22, lives in Lacor IDP camp. His home is indistinguishable from the other mud huts sloping into the green countryside. Surrounding his hut, dozens of orphans his parents care for – with ripped clothing, patchy discoloration in their hair signaling malnutrition, and distended bellies – suck on mangoes and kick makeshift water bottles cum footballs.
Okumu just graduated from a teacher training college and is now working at Lacor primary school. Abducted for three weeks during the war, he’s trying to use the Lacor diocese’s internet to help the local youth group, all former abductees, raise funds for a trade school and for drama activities to teach the community about reconciliation.
While BOSCO is an innovative set-up, its limitations are obvious. A majority of Northern Ugandans are illiterate and have never seen a computer. Okumu, who has come fairly far in his studies, only hesitantly speaks English, the lingua-franca of the internet.
BOSCO does provide computer training programs, but they lack equipment and staff. "The current training method is not very effective," says Mario Otti, a seminarian who regularly uses the internet at the Lacor diocese when on holidays, "but at least people have the opportunity to be more informed and widen their perspectives."
BOSCO’s chief engineer, Stefan Bock from Austria, says funding is the major limitation. "We have the technology to do it right," says Bock, recounting how BOSCO originally tried to partner with the Ugandan Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The Ministry eventually backed out, saying they weren’t allowed to support church-based initiatives. BOSCO is now looking abroad for major donors and hopes to partner with local organizations.
ICTs: The Future Engine of Development?
The use and popularity of ICT like the internet, cell phones and radio is spreading rapidly in Northern Uganda. During a recent forum on ICTs and agriculture, over 40 peasant farmers in Apac district proved proficient in using a special messaging service on their cell phones to check local market prices. Over just the last few years, this new technology has virtually eliminated profit loss resulting from underestimating sales value.
When the farmers were introduced to BOSCO, they immediately grasped the potential and demanded to know how it could be implemented in their district. In Southern Uganda, farmers are already selling their products online through an internet forum published in Lugandan, the major dialect of Southern Uganda, called ‘online kimeza’ run by Council for Economic Empowerment for Women of Africa (CEEWA)-Uganda.
Enthused, Dickens Wasio, the speaker for the political leader of Apac, says he hopes to divert some of the $2,000 allotted by the Uganda government for ICT development to help BOSCO get started in his district. "We can aggregate the local government offices and provide each one with internet. This will help in communication with the government in Kampala, as well as with security."
He also directs the Laroo School of War Affected Children in Gulu and wants to give parents, often separated from their children for long periods of time, more contact. "Sometimes when the children are sick they need to go home. With BOSCO we could reach their parents, most of whom live in rural areas."
While Father Joe says he’s not yet convinced BOSCO is the answer to many of the infrastructural and social problems of the IDPs and other rural communities, he recognizes the potential for sustainable grassroots development. He commented, "Development is where you make it."