Though I’ve only been in Zambia for four days, it feels as though I’ve been here for weeks. Zambia is full of journalistic inspiration. There are so many thoughts racing through my brain, so many words I wish to put to paper, so many topics I’d like to discuss. One such topic, ironically enough, is keeping me from starting those discussions: Internet accessibility issues.
Hotel Internet Issues
When we were still in the United States, we had been informed that we’d be staying at a four-star hotel where Internet access was available. That was important to us as journalists, as students and, last but not least, as social networking fiends.
Upon arrival, the situation played out a bit differently than we expected. We were each given a one-hour slot of Internet access that could be attained only with a code and password we’d have to ask for each day. Even worse (in the minds of Internet-obsessed college students) was the speed and reliability of the connection: sub-par, at best.
Though it may sound like it, I’m not complaining—I’m just telling it like it is. For many of us, having the Internet literally within an arm’s reach (via our smartphones, iPods, laptops, or whatever else) at all times is a norm, so losing that was quite a culture shock. Personally, I’m glad I’ve been so disconnected because it’s allowed me to focus more on Zambia and, to an extent, empathize with Zambians. From the hotel, however, the Internet issues only worsened.
Internship Internet issues
So far, I’ve had the opportunity to spend a day with both Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) and the government-run Times of Zambia (the Times). At PSAf, my colleague and I were surprised as the workers casually explained they’d been without Internet for three weeks, as though it happened all the time (which it does). It was hard for me to fathom being able to function effectively at a workplace with no Internet access, but they relied heavily on phones and in-person visits.
Surely the Times would be better, right?
Not so much. Upon arrival to the feature reporters’ office, I saw three boxy computers probably dated back to the 90s. I was taken aback considering that the Times is a government organization, but wasn’t truly shocked until I learned that two of the computers wouldn’t even turn on. The remaining one was functioning so slowly it surely had a virus. All of the features reporters had to share that computer.
Zambian Internet issues
When I shared my experiences with other students, several of them had witnessed similar situations at their internships. In the U.S., we don’t often think about the fact that many citizens in other countries not only don’t grow up with good technology—some never see it at all.
According to The World Factbook, there were 14,771 Internet hosts in Zambia as of 2010—a number that ranks 118 out of just over 200 in comparison to the rest of the world. Of the nearly 14 million Zambian citizens, only 816,200 were actively using the Internet as of 2009. That figure ranks 105 amongst the other nations in the world.
To put that in perspective, the U.S. has about 439 million Internet hosts and 245 million Internet users. It does have a much larger population, but the percentage still presents an outstanding difference—the U.S. ranks number one in hosts and number two in users, second only to China.
For me, that point was driven home by a simple incident with big implications. At the Times, I watched as a reporter struggled to re-type an edited article using only his index fingers. I offered to take a turn and he gladly accepted. When I began typing, he and another reporter gathered around to watch because they were amazed at how quickly I typed. In that moment, I realized there are so, so many things I don’t even realize I should be thankful for that I take for granted.
After seeing some of the conditions at the government’s newspaper, I better understand some of the issues with media in Zambia. I can’t imagine regularly trying to create and distribute journalistic pieces without having a sure and stable connection to the Internet and a working (preferably quickly) computer.
Lindsay Boyle is one of 18 students from Ohio University, studying abroad in Zambia over winter intercession, about media, society, and governance, through the Institute for International Journalism.