Words from Kenya

Connection

Dida Galgalu Plains

Sometimes I am absent from this site for quite some time, as they say here in Kenya, ‘I’ve been lost’. It’s not just from this blog either but also from Twitter or even email. People send me messages through Twitter or Facebook and expect an almost instant response. Others send me emails and wonder that I don’t reply for days, on occasions even weeks. People living in a connected world are quite put out about this. I think they feel I am being rather rude. However, it is not that I don’t care or even that I have nothing to say (never that!) But rather it is something much more pragmatic and related to where I live. The truth is that simply getting connected in most parts of northern Kenya can really be a challenge.

First of all, with the exception of a few offices in some of the larger towns, all internet connections are made via the mobile phone network. Mobile phone coverage has increased rapidly in the last few years and you can now get a signal on your phone in many more areas. However, despite the gains, mobile signal is still patchy and in most places you still can’t make or receive a phone call.

If you do manage to find a phone signal it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be able to connect to the internet. I am told that the phone companies make different allowances on the network for voice and data. In towns the amount of bandwidth available to data is much greater and getting access to the internet is correspondingly easier. In my experience using the internet outside the main urban centres is almost impossible. It is hard to make a connection at all, but when you do manage it data upload and download speeds are so slow that many web pages simply refuse to load.

Of course all that is assuming that you have access to electricity to power your laptop, or battery hungry smart-phone, in the first place. Getting connected is not just about hanging out of a tree or half off a cliff face in an attempt to catch that elusive mobile signal, it’s also a question of finding some solar device to charge your kit. Mains electricity is a rare luxury, exclusive to a few main roads and larger towns.

After you have done all that several hours will have elapsed; first charging your kit slowly on the solar charger, then searching for a spot where you can get mobile coverage and hoping that the email attachment sends before your battery runs out again. In those long hours your delicate technology has be subjected to all sorts of things that are excluded from the warranty; such as bouncing backpacks, rocks, thorny thickets, extreme heat and so much dust (though sometimes the latter is replaced by so much mud and torrential rain).

Consequently many people who want to get connected in northern Kenya have given up the frustrating battle with the fickle mobile coverage and the unforgiving environment and have opted instead to wait until they can visit one of the main towns were it all becomes a lot easer. I say easier, not easy. It is not uncommon to plan a day’s work on your laptop in town only to find that there is no electricity the whole of that day, or that for some reason the mobile signal has gone haywire.

Simple tasks that take moments in a well-equipped office in the city, or in the comfort of a modern home, can literally take days to accomplish in the north of Kenya. So, next time you are waiting with impatience to hear from somebody in a remote and marginalised area, consider that, far from being uncaring in their delay, they could in fact be going to heroic lengths to connect to you and the rest of the world.

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