I spent last week in Northern Uganda with a delegation of board and staff members of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, basedÂ in New York. The purpose of our trip was to interview and assess the reproductive health of internally displaced persons in the Acholi area of Uganda, which has been the site of an ongoing conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Uganda People's Defense Force --although in fact what has been happening is not a conventional war between armed combatants, but the victimization of innocent people by both sides, as the LRA murders the Acholi, steals their children and whatever else they happen to have, and the UPDF soldiers are feared for their reputation of sexual exploitation of women and girls.
Before the conflict, this very rich agricultural area was dominated by traditional village structures and farming, but now nearly everyone in this part of Uganda lives in a camp patrolled by the UPDF, where they get food aid and a varied amount of healthcare. AIDS is a growing problem and there are only two hospitals in the entire region. To receive care at either of these hospitals people must bicycle or walk from many miles away. With only a few visible exceptions, all vehicles are owned by the UN and NGO's, no roads are paved and I only saw one power line in hundreds of miles we covered. There are only a few post offices and no regular mail delivery.
But there is cell phone coverage practically everywhere. Even in a part of the world that was highly dangerous until a little more than a year ago, and where you can travel for miles without seeing a cultivated field or building, you find cell towers erected against an empty landscape. The people who live in the few large towns seem to have cell phones, the NGO's and camp commanders carry them; there are cell phone shops in the towns, and there are at least two service companies to choose from. It's as if the people here are skipping whole generations of technology development to go directly to a tool that works extremely well and easily connects them to the rest of the world.
The implications for this are enormous. In a part of the world where there is precious little infrastructure, there is a communications network that is effectively global. Much of the traditional way of life for the Acholi is forever destroyed, even if the tenuous peace holds and they are able to return to their former farms. Inevitably, any development here will create more and wider proliferation of cell technology, with the inevitable expansion of global entertainment and information - about education, healthcare, and what we know as human rights. This is not, strictly speaking, social media but it is extremely social and our own internet platform, as I see it, will benefit from its ability to download and upload from the cell conduit - if we care. For all the good that greater transparency and communication can offer, for all the power we are creating, none of our technology can remove an AK-47 from the hands of a drunk, 15-year old boy waiting for us on a dark road.