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Staff Blog

SMS Services for Senegal

by Rowena Luk

12 July 2009

In a rural classroom in the troubled Cassamance region of Southern Senegal, a group of mothers and grandmothers gather on a Tuesday morning to learn about text messaging. They are led in this session by a young woman, whom I had previously taken to be quite soft-spoken, but who speaks today with an authority which surprises me. She calls out to the class:

“Tell me, why do people use text messaging?”

And the whole classroom has answers for her. There’s the standard ones: it’s more reliable. It’s cheaper. And then those that are a little less obvious: it uses less batteries. It keeps a permanent record of messages sent and received, with a timestamp that can be used as proof of transaction. Remember, this is from a group of women who 4 years ago didn’t know how to write – most of whom don’t own their own mobile phone – and some who are not allowed to leave the house on their own or even to touch their husband’s phone. Strange sight indeed.

This is just a small part of the process of community empowerment catalyzed by Tostan International. Tostan is a unique organization among development organizations, with an explicit focus on community-led development and positive social transformation. What this means is that they don’t tell villagers how to improve their lives – they give them the tools to figure it out for themselves.

SMS training, which takes place over the course of 15 sessions, is just one of the skills Tostan imparts to its member communities. And even in this, you can see Tostan’s philosophy seeping into everything that they do: the social potential of SMS is conveyed through the locally relevant metaphor of the mango tree. Its relevance is expressed not just in economic terms, but with respect to local governance and decision-making, health, environment, and agriculture.

Into this picture, we have been invited by Tostan and UNICEF to play a part extending the possibilities of what SMS can do for these communities – to explore new paradigms of social and group interaction over text messages, to help catalyze widespread change by building bridges between communities, and to empower women and children by giving them alternative means of communication.

We don’t yet know what form this technology is going to take. Perhaps what we will end up with is a community events announcement list. Or it may be something like a confidential question and answer line for children. Perhaps this will be a venue for villages to engage other villages in discussions about particular topics. Or maybe it’ll be something else entirely.

The important thing is that whatever it is, it will be something which we will develop alongside these communities, in order to help them to decide for themselves how they want to define and promote this notion of ‘development’.

our fearless leader

The fearless young woman who leads our class of future SMS experts. Photo by Terra Weikel.

The base of the cell phone tower near our village (the only source of reliable power). There is one outlet which you can see the villagers have put to good use.

The only source of reliable power in the village is a plug at the base of the local cell phone tower. There is one outlet, which you can see the villagers have put to good use. Photo by Terra Weikel.

The village women perform a skit demonstrating the usefulness of text messaging to the rest of the village. The hand that this women is waving so enthusiastically is actually holding a mobile phone.

The village women perform a skit demonstrating the usefulness of text messaging to the rest of the village. The hand that this women is waving so enthusiastically is actually holding a mobile phone. Photo by Rowena Luk.