On the Validity of the African Experience
in the World of New Technologies

Alnaaz Kassam, Toronto District School Board

On a visit to Kenya about 20 years ago, I found myself with my brother on the newly opened road to the Rift Valley. There were not many cars on the road and as we arrived at the spot where we could look upon the beauty of the valley, my brother parked the car.

As we walked to the edge of the cliff, I gazed down upon the Rift Valley - its red soil, its trees, its animals. I realized that for me, Kenya and her soil, her trees, her countryside and even her people were tied to my soul. In the many years since I have left the country of my birth, there has not been a day when I have not thought of my home and the simplicity of my life there.

Today, I see myself as a Canadian hurtling faster and faster towards technological advancement. Each wave of advancement offers more and more promise of happiness - and yet none of the sheer peace and joy of the African countryside remains mine.

In Africa, as the sun set, we saw people rushing around to prepare supper. We had so little. When my parents acquired the first TV in the neighbourhood in the sixties, we had neighbours who visited us for months. Our phone came to us after ten years of being on the waiting list. It rang perhaps twice a month. The calls were mostly from relatives abroad.

At six each evening, we went to the Mosque for the evening prayer. People understood each other. Africans, who were mostly Christians, understood the call of the divine. "Oh God of All Creation, Bless this our Land and Nation" were the words of our National Anthem.

We had no computers. TV came on for three hours a day and radio had only three channels: English, Swahili and the vernacular - where we had an hour of Hindi each day. Yet when we attended school, we learnt English, Swahili and French. We acquired knowledge of the world, of the sciences, of the arts, of music.

We talked to our neighbours and we talked to people on the street. Vendors came to our homes to sell vegetables, to deliver milk, the newspaper - and with each of them we had a relationship.

Now my newspaper is there every morning, but I pay for it through a credit card. I never see who delivers it in the silence and darkness of the early morning. I pick up the milk at Beckers around the corner, and the vegetables at the Loblaws, where each day there seems to be a new cashier. If I disappeared tomorrow, would anyone but my children notice?

But I have not noticed the speed of "progress." When I came to Canada in the seventies, there was the phone, there were the channels on TV and on the radio, but we still went to tellers to withdraw money. Today the bank card has largely replaced the teller.

Back then, I bought my groceries at the small corner store, where the shopkeeper would speak in Hindi to my mother when she visited. Back then, I had no computer, nor did my friends, nor did my professors. And even though I came from Africa, there was not such a leap of technology.

And today, as an educator, as I experiment with the new technology, I find myself wincing each time the word Internet is mentioned. I did not mind computers - they fascinated me with their logic. I used to say to my students: the computer is so logical, it is stupid. We knew all the while it was just a game, and that we humans were in control.

But now with the Internet, or the Net - what is it that scares me? Is it the promise of everyone being able to communicate with everyone else, of being able to express oneself with no fears, of free speech, of neighbourliness, of having a voice? Is that what scares me? But that is what Africa was. Africa was having a voice that counted, at least to my neighbours, of having neighbours, of being able to talk meaningfully with them, of being sure that they cared no matter what our relationship - because they would be there tomorrow as I would too.

If the Internet offered that possibility of voice, it would be good. But it does not - it offers anonymity but also no responsibility. It is as a talk show host described chat-room conversations - they are like trains hurtling by in the dark. One hears the other, but the sounds are just voices that must not be taken seriously. However, it is not just the anonymity that scares me.

What frightens me is when the Net becomes glorified as something great, the unknown, the cyberspace: people who do not know what it is, envy those who do, as though it is a space of wisdom, where only the initiated may enter. It is when the Net is lifted up to the level of the gods that it scares me, for it is only for me a medium, a medium for people to communicate with each other, a medium which pretends to bring people closer together. I believe that if you had been to Africa and lived the life I have led, you would recognize the fašade of closeness the Net seems to convey.

I recently returned to Africa after 20 years. I found a Kenya that had computers, the Internet, many channels on TV and radio, bank machines and cell phones galore. Tall office buildings graced the downtown core; traffic gridlock and large supermarkets were there, too. It was an Africa that looked so much like the Canadian cities I knew.

Nonetheless, on the last day, as I was leaving my hotel, I went to the little store, and bought a tin of the famous Kenyan coffee from the young lady at the cash. I asked her if the coffee was instant or needed a coffee machine to brew, and she replied:

"Oh in Kenya, we just boil it - and this coffee smells so delicious, you can be sure that your neighbours will drop in, just to share and have a cup."

I sadly explained to her that in Canada neighbours often don't know one another, and it is unlikely that anyone, even close friends and family, would drop in on each other without calling first to set up an appointment.

"Oh no, is that Canada? It is not right that they should be like that..." was the confused reply.

As I ponder that conversation, it occurs to me that Kenya continues to have a lot to teach the Canada that keeps hurtling forward in its technological progress.


[This letter was originally broadcast 21 November 1996 (2nd hour) on the CBC radio program Morningside.]