I'm fascinated by one of the more prominent local languages, which
is Kiswahili mixed with French. As in, "Pale Gisenyi Internet ni
haraka kusidi hapa Goma, alors que pale, hakuna stima jusqu'a
Before winging my way to Bukavu, I should mention my brief
experience across the Rwandan border from Goma in the little
border town of Gisenyi. It all revolves around power.
It seems there are substantial renovations underway on the system
that delivers power to Goma from the hydroelectric plant near
Bukavu, Goma's sister city on the opposite end of Lake Kivu. The
regularly scheduled power cuts are expected to last for another
week or so, though they don't seem to have much of an effect on
the Goma Internet Zone. Sometimes the monitors cut off, but the
CPUs are all on backup power units.
On my second trip to the Zone, I glumly watched an American
baseball screensaver as a diversion from counting Web-page
download times -- the crowd would cheer each time a runner slid
into second base, over and over again. A British woman seated at
the next terminal was not nearly so patient, and engaged the staff
in an endless debate about how much she was paying for so little
benefit. The staff foolishly argued back while the owner, Oscar, sat
anonymously in the corner taking it all in.
I suppose what happened is that the staff of all the humanitarian
agencies operating in Goma had tremendous expectations upon
learning that an Internet telecenter would be opening in town, and
were crushed to learn that it was next to impossible to use it in the
manner to which they were accustomed back home. For myself, I
turned off image loading in Internet Explorer, and managed finally to
register a Hotmail account. After declining ancilliary Hotmail
subscriptions to all manner of newsletters, I dashed off a quick
note to family and friends, only to learn that the network connection
had been lost in the moments it took me to compose my note.
I struck up a conversation with the British woman while we waited
for the second coming. She mentioned that many NGOs
frequented a smaller telecenter just across the Rwanda border in
the town of Gisenyi, a mere 10 minutes away, not counting the 30
minutes or so of formalities at the border. I packed up my laptop
and was on my way.
Hakuna stima. No power. And worse, the power fluctuations had
fried the Gisenyi center's modem -- they were waiting on the
delivery of another.
With a flash of inspiration I asked the attendent if I could simply
connect my laptop to their telephone line and dial up to the IPASS
number in Kigali. "Ah, for that monsieur, you need to ask
permission from my boss." And who would that be? "His name is
Oscar." Hmm. The same Oscar who runs the telecenter in
Goma? "Yes, he is there now."
I used a Rwandacell phone to call Oscar back in Goma, and he
agreed that I could use his phone line, provided I paid the "fax" rate
of 25 US cents per minute. I connected quickly to Kigali and
queried my SMTP server in California -- 105 messages waiting.
Hmm. At an effective download speed of about 4800bps, that
would take... Best left for another day.
It seems the main telecenter had been in Gisenyi until just a few
weeks before. According to folks around town, Oscar had decided
that since most of his customers were from Goma, it would be
better to open up shop there. In particular, this would allow him to
tap into the United Nations market, since UN personnel were not
allowed to cross the border from Congo into Rwanda. According to
one UN person I met, this was for "security" reasons. Some say
the UN crowd isn't particularly popular with the RCD, the governing
authorities of the day in Eastern Congo.
So Oscar moved most of his computers from Rwanda to Congo,
and opened business. Frequent users tell me that the system in
Gisenyi, connected to KIST (Kigali Institute for Science and
Technology), worked much faster than the new system in Goma
connected (according to Oscar) through an oversized golf ball
antenna via Intelsat.
I asked an acquaintence in Goma why Oscar wouldn't just connect
via microwave to Rwandatel's network. Apparently there'd been an
attempt to do that by another organization, but the bills weren't
paid and the equipment stolen, so presumably for that reason
Rwandatel isn't keen on doing too much cross-border business,
apart from its prepaid cellular service of course.
Ah, the "enabling environment." We all talk about it. Here at
Goma/Gisenyi we see what happens when one critical aspect of
that environment -- the enforceability of contracts -- is either
missing or takes a rather unusual form. Don't get me wrong -- I do
believe that contracts in Eastern Congo even today are quite
enforceable, but I don't think they're enforceable in the -- hmm, how
shall I say -- in the conventional manner. <smile> Such
"environmental" conditions call for innovative contracting -- more
about that on another day.
Having failed once again to secure my mail, I proceeded with a
friend for a stroll along the beach. Seemingly hundreds of children
were splashing about or lolling on the white sand while parents
sipped sodas under umbrellas planted among palms. Sparkling
whitecaps on the water, a cool breeze, a brilliant blue sky.
Who needs email anyway?
Jeff @ Bukavu
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