I was traveling with a team of Americans who had brought around 50 donated laptops to Saint Joseph’s Comprehensive High School in Mambu, Bafut, Cameroon, where a new computer lab was to be set up. Mambu is a day’s drive through rolling, remote country from the country’s coastal hub, Douala . It’s a community nestled into verdant hills that surround Bamenda, a regional center with a population of around 500,000. Thirty or so structures — some timber, some plaster, most makeshift and crumbling — line a dirt road running through the village. It happened to be the rainy season when we visited; often the road is flooded and impassable, but we got lucky.
As our chartered bus, filled to the brim with laptops, routers, curious white faces and enough clean underwear for only a short stay, bounced into town, the mission was well rehearsed and our ambitions clear: set up a computer lab; empower the population; spur an economic boom; improve living standards. Easy, right?
The 13-inch notebooks were deities in this, their sun-soaked, air-condition-less second chance at life. The reception from staff and students upon unloading the otherwise average, aging laptops was frenzied. It only served to validate our presence there. It felt like we — and they — had already succeeded! Success felt all but assured, and the possibilities limitless.
Amidst the fanfare, I paused. I tried to celebrate, but I was stuck. Instead, as flocks of smartly dressed students, smiling, squealing, checking their Facebook profiles, playing games or sending emails to family on their new laptops, my mind drifted.
Clearly, digital technology — or, at least, its reputation — has globalized. Even in rural Cameroon, in one of the most overlooked regions on earth, you can’t travel more than a few kilometers without noticing the presence of smartphones or computers. It doesn't take much to notice the impact they are having. Yet, whenever I’m in a place like Mambu--the kinds of places Westerns group together, label "poor", and, unfortunately, pity--I leave with more questions.
Since the proliferation of the internet, the computer, and the ascendance of Silicon Valley to near mythical status, the world echoes with “innovation this,” “innovation that,” keeping itself wired and restless as it daydreams about disruption--suddenly a positive term. But things are moving fast, and while the promise and potential of the digital revolution may very well be real, it seems appropriate to pause and think deeply about our beloved 1s and 0s.
Does the popular “digital technology is positive, the analog past is negative” dichotomy stand up to scrutiny in a fundamentally gray, contextualized world? What can be done to ensure and maximize the positive potential of these new tools?
What was the scene was like here in Mambu when the first light bulb flicked on, or the first car roared to life? What has changed since? Is the digital revolution really all that different than other imported technological "revolutions"?
Without Steve Jobs or the iPhone, would the cobalt mining regions in the Congo be the cruel places they are today? Without social media, would the Arab Spring have happened? Would Syria be in the dire state it is in now? Without twitter or Facebook's newsfeed algorithm, would Donald Trump be President? Who knows, but it seems as sure of a sure thing that the Kardashians wouldn't be as popular today without these platforms as it does that the Black Lives Matter movement ever really takes off.
Of course, I am ignoring some things, oversimplifying others, and posing unfair hypotheticals. But to me, the only certain thing is that digital is powerful, and that it needs to be carefully wielded. That means not taking anything for granted and asking questions.
Maybe the palpable potential I felt at that school in Cameroon was real. Maybe, even if the positive impacts can't yet be felt, it's just a matter of time. Maybe soon the "revolution" will bare fruit, improve lives, and level playing fields.
Maybe soon, when the boy I spent an afternoon with listening to Nas is older and an active shaper of the same world that shaped him, he'll prove right the glowing rhetoric in support of an increasingly digital, increasingly global world. Or, maybe he'll be fixing up a 20 year old Mac Book Pro so he can make just enough money to feed his family.
Across the street I could see half a man. He was shuffling, squirming legs from where I stood--nothing more. The hood of a rusty 1980's Ford F-Series truck concealed everything else. It seemed within reason--almost obvious, for a moment--that, with hood agape and legs jerking, car was eating man.
But wait... no. Of course not. The man was merely leaning into the machine, I concluded, tweaking and tugging at its insides. Yes, that's it: he was fixing the car--a latest attempt to resuscitate something the rest of the world moved on from some time ago.
A big, beautiful,
I continued observing. I saw no fancy tools. Saw no replacement parts. No team of mechanics. I saw none of that, but I felt pity, and felt hot shame quickly rise within me for feeling it.
I tried to recall seeing a car less than a decade old since arriving in Cameroon. Maybe I had, but I couldn't be sure.
What I had seen made it seem unlikely the half-man could afford anything better. I'd seen with numbers and now my own eyes how poor job prospects were in the region. I'd come to understand that the only way he could keep moving forward was to forever be fixing the perpetually broken.
The day-long drizzle had finally stopped. From the open window of which I was leaning out now flowed a steady whoosh of newly pure air that, despite its damp and its chill, washed over me like a warm blanket. Wafting skyward from the soaked soil was that unmistakable, universal post-storm scent: earthy, woody, musty, yet vibrant. Invigorating.
Who’s world is this…
Out back, a sudden flurry. Cheers, jeers, then arguing. “Somebody scored,” I thought. I had walked past the dirt field not five minutes earlier. Now I was imagining the lumpy, twined wad of rags vaguely resembling a soccer ball passing through two upright sticks being employed as goal posts.
Lack of sleep dulled my mind, but unfamiliar surroundings and the warm-cold breeze kept my senses sharp; disoriented and alert, all at once.
I heard something familiar.
Sure enough, from behind where I stood Illmatic bumped from a Dell desktop that couldn't have been much newer than the New York MC’s 1994 masterpiece. My host, a local 13-year old boy I had met while setting up a computer lab at his nearby school, was sitting at the desk upon which sat the computer. At some point when I was drifting off, into myself, he had logged onto the World Wide Web, searched YouTube for something special and clicked play.
I moved closer. I sat down next to him. He pulled out a beat-up cell phone that wasn't quite what I would consider a smartphone back home and began swiping through pictures.
The pictures followed familiar themes: Sunglasses. Peace signs. Tough guy posturing. Shy girls unable to stifle sly smiles. Old cars made to look new.
As he swiped came also a rapid-fire audiovisual tour of his life, painting for me, with words and selfies and stories, a self portrait--his self portrait.
He continued talking. Nas continued preaching. I listened attentively. Then I noticed a textbook on the table next to the computer, titled, “Computer Programming for Beginners.”
I was stuck. Stuck somewhere between the familiar and the foreign.
Stuck oscillating between an instinctual sympathy that bubbled up whenever in the midst of something my experience labeled “bad”, and a stern denial of that sympathy that felt artificial, yet was convincing; like a cold shower of reason, stemming from, I suppose, a rejection of white guilt and all the nasty manifestations I’d grown sensitive to.
Stuck between feeling awed by this Nas-listening 13-year-old boy who couldn't afford new cloths yet was teaching himself how to code on his own janky computer, and thinking “of course he is.”
Stuck between, "I'm glad I came," and "why am I here?" and "but this isn't about me..."
I was--and still am--stuck in a strange place, surrounded by contradictions, paralyzed by uncertainty, by perspective, by insight. Stuck trying to convince myself this mindfuck is, somehow, progress.; is "woke-ness."
snap. But none of this is about me. This isn't my story. It’s about him; it’s the story of the people in his community. And it's about the forces actively shaping said boy and said community. snap. That last part, I reason, makes me--and likely you, too--relevant.
The song was wrapping up. “Who’s world is this?” my host posited with striking passivity. Is he stuck?
If I was the half-man, would I too be so crafty? So resilient?
I saw half a man fixing a rusty truck, and felt hopelessness.
But who's hopelessness did I feel?
"Nas? What the fuck?" I thought.
The world is yours. The world is yours.
It was Nas.