Thomas Friedman, the uber-columnist and senior globalization writer at the New York Times, jetted into Botswana last week, then flew to the remote Okavango Delta, rich in wildlife and terribly expensive for foreign visitors. Friedman quickly realized his many wireless devices were useless and cleverly dubbed this pristine and nearly depopulated northern part of B0tswana to be the “Land of No Service.” He then went on to extrapolate from his summer vacation that “much of Africa” is a Land of No Service.
Once more, another bigtime American finds Africa a convenient prop to push a larger message about life and the world. In this case, Friedman wants to inform us that being disconnected from the global web has some benefits. But why must he lie about Africa — demonizing it once more as a place of darkness — in order to drive home his point?
His “no service” mainly refers to his cell phone and even sat phone. Yet in reality, cell phone in Africa is today fantastic. In my own travels, even to remote places, mobile-service is often fine. Indeed, the more remote the area I visit, the stronger my signal (because fewer people are making calls). At times in Africa, and again in remote parts, I ponder why I never experience a dropped call (ie, a call that ends because the network is overloaded), while in the Bay Area, where I live, I suffer through a half-dozen dropped calls every day.
Botswana is of course a special situation, being one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Friedman tells us the country is the size of Texas; he does not tell us that the population of Texas is twelve times greater than Botswana’s. So of course there are “no service” places in Botswana, but the reason is not technological but social: the Botswanans want it that way. They want to be able to tell their well-heeled tourists that they are really in a remote place. For Friedman to confuse an exotic tourist destination with a place of Africa poverty is an echo of past gross misunderstandings of the African condition.