Thursday, July 12, 2007

globeandmail.com: Freetown's window to the world

Central Freetown is kaleidoscope of activity. Here in the capital of Sierra Leone, young women balance baskets of peanuts on their head, street vendors sell used clothing or knock-off electronics and amputees beg for coins.

In the midst of the day's ordinary chaos, the odd passerby ducks into a grimy cream-coloured building that juts out on the corner of Rawdon St. Up on the second floor is a popular cyber café called Sylvia Blyden. Named after its Sierra Leonean owner, the business offers round-the-clock Internet service -- and a place where locals can connect with the outside world.

As one of the few cyber cafes in the country, the place is usually packed. Customers grab a number and wait in a queue of plastic chairs lining a dimly lit hallway. Signs instruct visitors to ask for time before logging on, as well as warning people not to charge their mobile phones while they wait. Power is an issue in Sierra Leone, ranked the second poorest country in the world by the United Nations' Human Development Index. The country has been without reliable electricity since the 1980s and as a result, everything from TV stations to computers run on generators.

The cyber café itself is a simple, cramped room with dirty Smurf-blue walls trimmed with armies of ants. There are twelve working computers. Some of the Samsung screens are tinted — yellow, purple, blue. On a rainy Tuesday -- and despite the numbingly slow connection -- they are in high demand. When the computers crash or users are unable to connect to the Internet, support staff come to the rescue armed with a bag of trix. One of them uses a pair of scissors to reboot a computer, jabbing them into a small hole that used to be a power button.


Visitors at one of Freetown's few cyber cafes pay about a dollar an hour to surf the Internet




Brima Conteh waits patiently for his computer to be fixed. Before it shut off unexpectedly, he was glued to the Manchester United homepage. "I love sports," he says. Although Conteh spends most of his time online following Man U, his web use isn't limited to football. "I use it to learn more about news around the world."

The café operator, Mohamed Cybakamara, explains that the people here use the computers for a variety of reasons. "Documents, assignments, research, sending e-mails, communication. Some come and browse for finding friends."

One might suspect that cyber cafes in Africa have at least one person "finding friends" via e-mail scams. This could be the case, but more common is the young man in the corner browsing his hi5 page. West Africa has joined Web 2.0.

Internet centres started popping up in Sierra Leone in 2001. At present, there is a handful across Freetown. Three of them even make the Lonely Planet. The facilities range from a computer shop with CNN and an ice cream machine, to random, run-down rooms.

Sylvia Blyden is mid range. One hour of Internet use during the day costs about a dollar. From midnight to 7 a.m., it's even less. Flash drives are also for sale. A 128 MB stick goes for about $30. Since the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans don't have computers, memory sticks take the place of PDAs or laptops. Men here often wear the sticks around their neck.

Yahoo.com is the homepage at most Freetown cyber cafes, as well as the most popular webmail service across West Africa. Philomima Turay is checking her Yahoo account. "Trying to get some funds," she says. Turay, 39, is looking at a Masters program in Peace and Conflict Studies at Coventry University in England. It is a competitive program, so Turay is online exploring scholarships and grants.

Not all users are so forthcoming. When asked what he does online, Abdul Barrie replies, "chat with friends, doing my business." Barrie, 25, provides few details but says he's a sales manager in the lucrative diamond business. He spends time online emailing his business partner in Chicago and maintains that he goes through the proper channels with the government.

From football to email, bling to social networking, Sierra Leoneans are logging on. And for a buck an hour to see the world, it's the best deal around.

globeandmail.com: Freetown's window to the world