In Tanzania, technology helps shortening the distance between cities and farms

Jun 152011

It takes me nine hours of driving only on smooth tarmac to cover the 435 miles from Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam to Arusha in the north, but some of my citizen journalist trainees require two days to cover 100 miles or so to reach the venue for our sessions. So they set off a day earlier from their homes to arrive at the same time that I do.

I have thus over the past four months been experiencing first-hand the disadvantages of people who live in a large country as they struggle to develop their lot. I have in the process also come close to fathoming how technology can ‘diminish’ the distances and turn the large size into an advantage, for Arusha is also just an hour and half from Dar es Salaam by air. You board the aircraft under the unbearable Dar heat and an hour later, you are looking down at the snow on Mount Kilimanjaro. Minutes later, you disembark and feel the country’s diversity in the chilly Arusha air.

So while advocates of the United States of Africa say most of the countries on the continent are economically unviable because they are not large enough, I have come to appreciate that in development terms, size is relative. So the United States of America is not ‘too large’ for its citizens to get in touch, time zones notwithstanding – but tiny Rwanda or Burundi are ‘too large’ for their people to communicate effectively amongst themselves. Their neighbor, the huge Democratic Republic of Congo, is definitely ‘too large’ to even be governed effectively and the government in Kinshasa has little impact if any in the eastern part of the republic where neighbors Uganda and Rwanda at one time were effectively in charge. Yet Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries on earth.

So distance cannot be expressed in miles alone, without taking into consideration the means of covering that distance either by travelers or through communication. The distance, I have discovered, can be reduced by the information technologies available. However, they have to be harnessed by first giving the people some of the skills to use them.

At the beginning of the year, we forged a partnership with World Vision International, which is doing a lot of social/development work in Tanzania to create a network of citizen journalists and then link it to the national news networks. After a selection process, we chose twenty-eight citizens in the ‘northern zone,’ which is a large area in the north of Tanzania, with Arusha as the most important town.

I have since then led the training of these ‘citizens.’ They have learned to identify news, to verify and source tips, and to arrange these in a form that is presentable to the media houses. Some tips have already been followed up and published. I cannot in a few sentences draw a profile of the citizen journalists in this program, because they are as diverse as the large country is. This being an agricultural region, however, one thing all twenty-eight have in common is that they engage in farming activities. To some it is their full source of income. Otherwise, participants range from a gentleman who ‘retired’ from the defunct East African Community that collapsed in 1977 to a 21year-old lady from a pastoral community where 21 is not young, so she is a married mother of two and a farmer. She easily related to the guy who retired 13 years before she was born as they have common ground – making the land produce. She helps older colleagues adjust the setting of the mobile phones during our class exercises. (There seems to be a inverse relation between age and affinity to high-tech whichever part of the world you are in.)

So here we are, in a remote village in northern Tanzania, drawing up strategies with my group of ‘citizens’ on how to storm the big media houses in Dar es Salaam and gradually change the face of journalism in the country by making it more relevant to the people’s needs. My team has no intention of ever traveling to Dar es Salaam; their life is here in the north. But using their phones and the World Vision internet facilities, they will soon be ready to reduce the distance between themselves and audiences all over Tanzania.