18.03.2003 Feature Article

Internet fosters social change in Ghana

By Press
Internet fosters social change in Ghana
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By Mike Cassidy (Mercury News( These are not good times for the Internet economy.

The Internet itself, on the other hand, is alive, well and changing the way we live our lives.

I wrote last month about how the Net is pulling together people from around the world who want to stand up to governments they view as wrong-headed.

The Internet as a tool of political change.

Now comes one story about the Internet as a tool of social change.

Since 1998, a group of Bay Area Rotarians have been trying to make life better in Ghana. Their partners? Ghanian Rotary clubs. Their vital link? E-mail.

``We are able to interact and affect people in places that are strange and mysterious to all of us,'' says Jim Walker, a Cupertino Rotary member.

Walker and Ann Cleaver are among dozens of Rotarians from Watsonville to Oakland involved in an effort that started with polio vaccines for babies. Things took off.

The Rotary raised $44,000 to transform a cinder block building into the Kotobabi school library. The library is filled with books, locally manufactured furniture and 10 Compaq computers. The computers are networked to one another, but not to the Internet. School officials in Ghana are working on that.

The Rotarians are also beginning work this year on a school library and a water system for another village.

Cleaver, 66, keeps a photo album, with before-and-after pictures of Kotobabi.

``It still makes me teary to see what came from this,'' she says, flipping through the album's pages.

The library is one success in a country that needs many. The average annual income in the West African country is $400. Many young people see technology as a way out -- a way to make a decent living without leaving their country. Accra, the capital, has a fledgling tech presence -- ``the Silicon Valley of West Africa,'' the founder of a non-profit working there recently called it.

And that's all well and good, say the Rotarians. But they struggle with the old question about how to best help those who need so much. High-tech needs vs. basic human needs.

``You'd like to bring them into the 21st century with all that encompasses,'' says Walker, ``but if their need is water and health and education, we could drop computers on them all day . . .''

And not be much help. Walker says he has talked to his counterparts in Ghana about the dilemma. Do you need computers or do you need water, is how he put it.

``We need everything,'' Walker says they said.

It's the only way to do these things. Outsiders need to talk to those who know best. And nothing has fostered that rich communication like the Internet and e-mail.

``If we had to sit around and wait for letters to go back and forth it would be forever,'' Cleaver says. ``Telephone calls are very iffy. Faxes are worse. This just makes the communication instant, almost.''

It was e-mail that helped the Cupertino Rotarians coordinate with Rotary clubs in Ghana. It's how they discussed plans and timetables. It's how they stayed connected.

``Through technology, we probably have a better way of communicating, contacting and continuing those relationships,'' says Walker, 63, a retired contractor.

In the end, all agreed the computers would be worthwhile. In a country that so desperately looks to technology as part of the solution, the 10 machines will provide hope.

And some time soon, they might provide much more: A way for those in Ghana to reach out and connect and communicate and continue relationships of their own.

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