Testimony from African Geek to USA Congress

"My name is Antibo.  I'm from Central Africa."

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today

America is a wonderful place.  We have watched the enormous technological accomplishments, in airplanes, jets, computers, cell phones, communication, travel and manufacturing.  Your role in the past century is unique, and fantastic.

At one point we thought America had a weakness - slavery, segregation.   We read papers and saw coverage in the 1950s and 60s, and we had fears.  We know now that America was dealing with these problems, and after a struggle, put them behind you.   We are even more impressed to see USA emerge as a model of racial tolerance and opportunity.

We used to think that every American was a technology genius.   We thought every French woman was a beautiful actress.  It's funny, in retrospect, how movies and news clips make people believe that because something happens somewhere, that is what the people are like.

I'm here to talk to you about seeing people for what they can do, for what they do best, not just for what they cannot do.

America, the Lion, causes fear in dictatorships.   America is never an underdog.  America is a champion in sport, a champion in technology, and a champion in military defense.  And what America did with its software and programming, keeping its place in the past decades while allowing Asia to employ and prosper, shows generosity, ingenuity, and common sense.

What does America not do?  Well, I speak four languages.  It's rather common.  We learn to speak at least two languages, often three, as little children in Africa.  For us it is commonplace.   Americans, however, are always graciously amazed if we can speak two languages.

America also has lost the desire to fix things that cost less than $200.  You will repair airplanes, you repair cars.  But not many of you will pay to fix a laptop or a cell phone or television.  In 1980, you had 100,000 television and home electronics repair shops.  They are gone.  You don't repair because you don't need to, the same as you didn't need to learn a second language as a child.

In Africa, you will not be surprised to see a 50 year old car or motorcycle zooming down the road.   Even if they make no parts to replace the parts which wear, our shade-tree mechanics have learned which parts wear out, and we have invented ingenious make-do replacements.   It's called tinkering, and people have written books about it.

Now I personally do not, just because I am African, know how to fix a cell phone.   Just because I'm from Africa, does not make me a fixing genious.   And I do not expect you, as an American, to rewrite the code for my Windows XP driver.  Africans are good at repair, and Americans are good at software, but in each case, it is a core of our best and brightest that gives us this reputation.

I will leave you with that now.   I am not rich enough to boycott your software companies.    You, however, are rich enough to boycott my brothers and sisters in repair.

Some think it will give you more jobs if we stay under.   The fact is that are growing in internet use, growing in connectivity, Africa is becoming wired.  It is a work in progress.  We have done it so far by reusing and repairing the laptops and cell phones and computer displays that you sold to us.  That will make Africa a consumer, a buyer, a new market.  As the Ford company noted, planned obsolescence holds back new, younger drivers, cannibalize tomorrow's market for a short term gain.   Let us reuse and grow to buy new.

Some of your people, non-technical people, raised an alarm that it isn't repairing, that it's a "digital dump", or a reuse excuse.  They took cameras into our dumps and junk yards, and then said we don't really fix the goods we buy, that a trip to our hospital begins and ends at the morgue.   State laws were passed making it a crime to sell us used computers, or laws to pay only for scrapping, on condition against export.

We protested that it made no sense to pay 19 dollars to ship something and then burn it for 4 dollars worth of copper.  Finally, several reports have been published from the United Nations which actually took containers of goods we bought, and found we reuse 85 percent.  Of the remaining 15%, only a few things are toxic or risky, and of those, most risks can be avoided with the right processes.

What I want to do is to have my children get online and learn how big the world is.   We saw how America closed it's diversity gaps, its intolerance and distrust, with trade and communication.   I believe that in ten years a Hutu will see no more theat from a Tutsi than a Boston Irishman sees from a Chicago Polish decendent.

Just please, don't boycott us, don't ban trade with our geeks, fixers, and tinkerers.  They are not the majority of Africans, as software coders and engineers are not the majority of Americans.  But imagine a boycott on trade in technology made in America.  Now image such a boycott against Africa.  What would it look like?  And who would be leading it?

C'est les Planned Obsolescence contre Les Debrouillards.


As I said at the beginning, at one point, we Africans believed that America's weakness was bias and segregation.   We no longer believe that about America.   We hope that you will stop believing that something we struggle with - used parts replaced, items we have used for ten years - is a sign of strength.  Like America's diversity, Africa's used electronics are a symptom of something with powerful potential.  We accumulate what we can fix and add value to, as America once accumulated diverse immigrants from every corner of the world.  That diversity created challenges for you, but you proved it could be your strength.  Let us show you how Africa can meet the challenges of e-waste, and provide a better outcome than mining and disposal, for the whole environment, for the children of all of the world.

We are waiting, now in Africa, for a retraction.   Interpol said that our business was based in "organized crime".   NGO Watchdogs announced that 80% of what we import is burned or recycled in primitive conditions.   Original Equipment Manufacturers have told citizens that we operate in violation of international law.   American E-Waste Recycling companies have said that people who are willing to do business with us are not "Responsible Recyclers".  Photos of our poorest children, working in honest but difficult conditions, have been posted in National Geographic, Frontline, Time and others as a symbol or proof that our internet cafes, colleges, and hospitals are not really buying computers for internet, but are somehow a backdoor to poison children.  Yes, we have children who are dying.  They are mainly dying from lack of hospital blood banks, and lack of infrastructure for medicine.   Diverting three containerloads of working Pentium 4 computers and CRT monitors, sold to hospital suppliers, and calling it "e-waste", is not the kind of help or assistance we require, but that is an actual example of the challenges we are facing.

If you care to, please review the actual studies of actual loads of used electronics imported to Africa.  Please read about how most of the material shown at the dumps was imported decades ago and used for years, the same as E-Waste in your own dumps.  Then, if you care to, please show us some compassion and dignity.

-  OK I just made this whole thing up, I wrote it in one sitting with no edits.   Maybe I've got blog bloat.  I just enjoy thinking about the purpose of my life when I get up at five in the morning, and this is what I do while the coffee brews.

Here is an article about a website which pinpoints the "tech hubs" of Africa, using software similar to the Vermont Irene Flood maps that showed washed out roads.   E-Waste is more about geography than it is about chemistry.  http://motherboard.vice.com/2012/2/27/need-to-find-a-hackerspace-in-africa-look-on-this-map

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