Research: Internet in Uganda

One day, a brave peasant was told that he could communicate with anyone in the world through the copper colored wires hanging behind his hut. He was also told that he could send money anywhere to anyone.

The farmer who was reassured, took 15000 CFAF, dug a hole close to a telephone pole, and buried the money there. He then said to the pole: “Take this money and go and give it to my uncle Pabebyam who lives in town. He will use it to pay my son’s school fees. Bye!”

A few weeks later, he met Pabebyam in the village and asked him if he had received the money.

Which money? Pabebyam asked surprisingly.

The money I sent a few weeks ago.

No, I didn’t receive anything, Pabebyam replied.

They quickly went to dig up the money but they found that ants had already eaten it up.’

(Ouédraogo 2003: 167)

For decades new media technologies have been emerging in Uganda and other African countries and influenced social life in many ways. The lack of infrastructure prevented local communities from having contact with the ‘outside world’ for a long time. Because of technologies like the television, radio, mobile phone and the Internet more and more information is accessible and shared, relations have become increasingly intertwined and mobility is still increasing. Governments, telecom companies and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are heavily investing in information and communication technologies (ICTs). It seems that there is a blind trust in development policies that are built around ICTs. However, there is not yet much empirical knowledge of how these technologies are adapted by society and whether or not people on the ground make effective use of these novel technologies. In short: research on new media development and their particular social implications is still in a beginning phase.

In order to investigate the effectiveness of new media based development, a critical look into the discourse surrounding the particular development policies is required. However, it is even more essential to get insight in the complex relation between technology and society; we need to understand how social relations are changing, what kind of information is searched for, what kind of content is created and what the relation is between the virtual world and people’s perspectives and prospects.

In order to truly get insight in these issues it is necessary to take a bottom-up approach that comprises empirical fieldwork. Most Internet usage in Uganda is conducted in Internet cafés. For this reason this research has mainly been carried out in these publicly accessible Internet cafés. This rather informal sphere represents an area where people’s real needs and wishes are exposed, more than in official settings. Therefore it could give more insight in what developments and implications will arise now that Internet usage is increasing as a result of ICT based development policies.

Besides looking at the practical reality of how a particular society is incorporating the Internet, it is useful to look at the Internet as a constructed sphere, which is a construction in which Western countries have had a huge advance. We should therefore look at possible imperialistic notions on the Web and see whether, and if so, how the local use relates to that of a Western discourse. The Internet is a technology that offers communication with the rest of the world and certain mobility in a globalizing reality, which might be encountered very differently by different societies. This taken into consideration, we can ask the following questions: Now that the Internet has become available for a wider public, because of development efforts, how has this particular public made use of this and how has it affected people’s mobility? What are the social and economical motivations of the Internet users and to what extent do they make effective use of the available potentials?

Read full thesis here: The Digital Promise

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