Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farewell to the "New World"

On arrival at Entebbe airport this year, I was struck by a prominent roadside signboard emblazoned with the words, “Welcome to the New World.”  I recognized the telltale yellow (Y’ello) of Uganda’s (perhaps Africa’s) largest mobile network, MTN.  This marketing idea of a “New World” exercised my mind, particularly as it featured in related slogans, such as “Experience World-class Internet,” and “Join the New World of Better Money” that popped up everywhere, not least on my own phone!
 As you may imagine, as a religion scholar I was intrigued, but not surprised, at the inclusion of a “faith” dimension to this New World.
 I inquired of a few Ugandan youth what the notion of the New World meant to them.  “It means we have entered the modern world,” said one.  But modernization has been occurring in numerous ways over decades in Uganda, I said.  Another opined that it refers to the new possibilities of communicating, networking, and conducting business that did not exist before.  Agreed.  But that New World of connectivity comes at a price.  Airtime is expensive.  Saving up to buy a phone on low wages can take months if not years. Service is unreliable due to congestion from overselling. When you can’t reach someone or he or she can’t reach you by phone, people simply say frustratedly “network.”  To boot, I never knew how much inclement weather could play havoc with the wi-fi signal for downloading your email.   
On the bus ride back down to Entebbe last weekend I mused about another version of this New World, the one our wonderful set of GSSAP students has been exposed to and helped generate during their time in Gulu.  A New World of experiences, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, but above all of Ugandan people who welcomed and inspired us in manifold ways, notwithstanding the many challenges they face in rebuilding their lives and communities in this deeply war-affected area.  No doubt that our students will be staying in touch with their new friends and their teammates via those New World connections, but it is good to know that our life-changing memories will transcend those pesky networks. 

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