Calling Home: ICT in Suriname's Rainforest

Organisation: UNICEF.

Prior to joining Dimagi, I served in the Peace Corps in Suriname, where I worked among the Saamaka, descendants of escaped slaves whose homeland is deep in the rainforest, several hours by car and boat from the capital city of Paramaribo.

The earliest Saamaka, running away from whites who wanted to recapture or (often and) kill them, chose this homeland in large part on account of its inaccessibility. It was an area where the various specialties and adaptations they developed would be especially potent, while outsiders (people from what is often today called “the western world”) would have a very hard time projecting their power.

That was approximately three hundred years ago, and while independence and self-determination remain important to the Saamaka, the society is undergoing a period of rapid change, as there is a major, ongoing shift in the line between things and behaviors on the one hand that are the mark of outsiders, and those that the Saamaka choose to incorporate into their everyday life.

One of these rapid shifts was in what is called Information and Communications Technology (ICT). When I first arrived in early 2011, many Peace Corps Volunteers would bring laptops into Saamaka and then hide them in their back rooms, out of fear of seeming ostentatiously rich. By the time I left more than two years later, that was no longer necessary; now Saamaka men would walk up to me with laptops of their own, asking for help on how to manage their music collections on these new devices. Tablets, too, had started to make an appearance, if only barely.

Even more pervasive than the shift in large devices was the one in telephony. As late as 1998, telephones were so uncommon in Saamaka that two-way radio stations were still marked on maps of the region. In less than ten years, Telesur, the main service provider, had set up call boxes in several hubs in the area. By 2011, these too were obsolete, as almost everyone had Nokia telephones. And the change was still accelerating.

Telesur was a state-owned company, but telecoms market liberalization was underway nationally, and Digicel, a major international provider, was making major strides by taking a slightly different approach to rate structures at the same time as they set up a network whose geographic reach was almost as broad as the incumbent’s. The change in telecoms began (as so much does) with the boatmen, who started to carry two cell phones so that they could reach (and be reached by) their clients at the lowest rates. Soon the multi-phone trend spread to others in society.

But it would be a mistake to believe that this was all about utility. Many young men would have a phone which they could use as a dedicated portable music player, leaving it on as they walked around their village or washed in the river; it became the norm for young women to expect that phone credit would be provided to them by suitors and boyfriends who wanted to stay in touch. Blackberries bought on the second-hand market became increasingly common, and on more than one occasion I heard the owner of one use the words “internet” and “Facebook” as synonyms.

The rise of smartphones was almost unbelievably rapid, and while the dependence on the secondhand market for buying phones meant that there was some lag in technology uptake, that lag was surprisingly small. The first time in my life I heard about Samsung’s line of smartphones was from a sixteen-year-old Saamaka girl who looked with pity on my basic Nokia and said, perfectly matter-of-factly, that when her Blackberry broke, she was getting a Galaxy.

As the society changed the tools with which it communicated, there was a shift as well in the types of information that it prioritized, and a corresponding shift in who had access to this information. A change had already started from looking at the gerontocratic authorities in society as the ultimate conservators and arbiters of important knowledge, and the rise of ICT seemed poised to accelerate this. Patterns of intergenerational respect were changing, and oral traditions of the Saamaka’s centuries-long history seemed poised to undergo, at the very least, a format transformation.

Gender relations were also changing, as men, who had long enjoyed special privileges as the gatekeepers who decided what bits of western society could be safely domesticated, now found their interactions with Facebook-accessing and cell-phone-chatting increasingly westernized Saamaka women to be more complicated than they had been before. In more ways than one, fundamental decades- and centuries-old modes of interaction between members of the society were being changed as a result of ICT.

I came to see ICT as not simply a tool or a widget (despite its anonymizing acronym), but as a pervasive, pan-societal trend. On account of its sheer scale, ICT also lacks any single overarching moral value. ICT is neither good nor bad, though it can have effects that can be seen as either good or bad. When it comes to international development (the bread and butter of the Peace Corps), ICT is an elephant in the room, changing the way we think about the relationship between all the pre-existing furniture.

When, shortly after my term as a Volunteer came to a close in the summer of 2013, I came across Dimagi, I was excited at the opportunity to work with a firm that thinks broadly and deeply about ICT in the developing world; while ICT may not be necessarily good, careful application can help maximize the potential of the technology to disrupt areas like health, education, agriculture, and humanitarian relief in positive and productive ways, while also keeping an eye on the broader societal implications of this new way of organizing human interaction. It looks to be an interesting ride.

Organisation: UNICEF.





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