Monthly Archives: October 2009

On Internet in Benin and the lack thereof

Last Thursday, we woke up to no Internet. At 8:00, we called Benin Telecoms to signal the problem. “We’ll send a team right away,” they said. “Are you sure you need to send a team out here? We just can’t log in, so the problem’s probably on your end.” “What could you possibly know about our servers? We’ll send a team over right away,” they responded.

At 10:30, still no team. Bertrand calls again. “Yeah, we can’t send anyone because we don’t have any spare cars. The director said that we can only transport equipment in official vehicles, and all of the teams are already out.” “But we were the first ones to call this morning!” Bertrand protested. “Yeah, well, not my problem. We’ll call you right before the team leaves for your house.” “What? I have a job, you know. I can’t wait around all day.” “Well, that’s not my problem either. The team will come when it comes.”

5:30pm. You guessed it. Still no connection, still no visit from Benin Telecoms.

Eventually their technicians stopped by, only to tell us that our recharge card had expired early.” Just pay another $50 for a new one,” they said. “But we’ve got 10 days left on this one!” “Yeah, we can’t help you.” We made enough noise that the techs spent all day Friday trying to credit our account. It didn’t work (of course it didn’t work!), and we ended buying a card and getting our connection back Friday evening.

Last night, some guys selling a shady satellite connection stopped by. I guess they’re used to talking to potential clients who know nothing about the Internet, because they were pretty much assholes. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not a dumb trophy wife, and I ask smart questions. They’ll get back to me, they said.

This morning? You guessed it. The connection’s out again.

Because we can’t get DSL in our neighborhood, there’s really only one alternative to Benin Telecoms. Unfortunately, they’re more expensive, and we had a really awful experience the last time we used them. We actually met with the Lebanese owners a few weeks ago. It was a lovely conversation and I appreciated the birds-eye view of the telecoms industry. They seemed like nice guys. However, all the nice guys in the world can’t get me enthusiastic about going back to an ISP where we were treated so terribly before. Every time I think about walking into their waiting room, my stomach clenches and I start to feel dizzy.

Yeah, that’s right. Theresa “Fuck this shit I CAN TAKE YOU” Carpenter Sondjo is afraid to walk into a Beninese ISP because they treated me so awfully the last time. What if that asshole is still there? What if he refuses to sign us up because we left them before? What if they call me a liar again? What if they lie about our contract again? What if they lie to my husband about what they promised us when he goes alone because I’m too upset to go back? What if we pay for a connection after they’ve promised to reimburse us the entire $200 installation fee if the connection sucks, and then tell us that they’ll be keeping $50 anyway? What if I end up crying in their lobby again?

Of course all that would never happen. The reality is that I’d just call up their Commercial Director and say, “Yo, we’re ready to try again.” And he’d be super nice and take care of all the details and no problem at all. But of course that doesn’t stop me from having completely irrational freakouts.

All this to say that for the moment we’re stuck with Benin Telecoms. And no connection. And that makes me sad.

I thought this post was published this morning but the connection must have conked out in the middle of the upload AND SO IT GOES.

Why is so hard to understand why Universal fucking Health Care is a GOOD THING?

I had lunch with an expat this morning, and said I that sometimes I have a hard time talking about development in Benin, as even we haven’t gotten it right yet. She looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “We??!? *I* come from a country that has universal health care and free education up through university.”

She’s Danish.

For everyone who’s not actively involved in the battle for a public option, let me explain something. I do not have health insurance, and I want to have children some day. I can:

  1. Give birth in Benin, where, if something goes wrong, there may or may not even be any blood in the national blood bank if there’s a problem and I hemorrhage. Certainly, if my baby is born prematurely or in poor health, the odds of its survival are small.
  2. Go home and pay upwards of $10,000 to give birth in the country of my birth, where if something goes wrong, I will be paying off medical bills larger than my student loans for the rest of my life ($50,000 for a premature birth, for example).

There are those of you who will respond that it is my choice to live in Benin. What if I were simply unemployed? Would that make you more sympathetic? If I were on welfare, would you be less sympathetic? Do I have less a right to health care because I live abroad than because I live in the States? Do those without jobs have less rights to health care? Pre-natal care? Maternal care?

These days, the political has become very, very personal.

On why language is important when talking about women in tech

This is the second in a series of posts where I address technology, women in technology, and women in technology in Benin. *

Accompanying the recent spate of questions about how to find more and better women speakers for tech conferences, the general lack of women in technology, and a lot of comments about women’s capabilities and skills, has been a dreadful abuse of the English language hinting that women just don’t hack it in the technology sphere.

Why is okay to say that Mike Arrington is an asshole, but calling Sarah Lacey a princess is off limits? Why is making snarky comments about Xeni’s good looks bad, but saying that Stii is adorable okay?

In a word, privilege. What? What’s privilege, you say? It’s being the default (male) and benefiting from living in a patriarchal society that is institutionally sexist. It’s not intentional and it is not the same thing as being sexist or misogynist. If you have privilege, you can’t help it, and you can’t get rid of it. But you should realize it exists. Here’s a great list of privileges men have that women don’t. It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’m excerpting items that are particularly relevant to this discussion.

If I am male …

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

41. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

So what does this all mean, and how does it apply to talking about women in tech?

There are a lot of snotty jerks who think they’re smarter than everyone else in the tech sphere. There are a lot of pundits whose qualifications are doubtful at best. But singling out women as being particularly unqualified is unfair and contributes to the “boys club” feeling that tech often has. When you call a man an asshole, that man is an asshole. When you say that there are too many princesses writing about tech, you’re making a point about women, not just that woman.

In a male dominated sphere, especially one as related to show biz as the start-up scene, women get farther by being beautiful, charming, and having a larger than life personality. This is not any particular woman’s fault. It’s the fault of a patriarchal system that makes women sex objects first and entrepreneurs second.

In “Technology, the African women in it, and beer”, Miquel said:

For women (again in North America and Europe) the focus is usually on being some cutesy girl who does the occasional special interest piece, but who has no idea which end of a conditional statement is up. The worst of this type are the Sarah Laceys and Xeni Jardins of the world because they create a perception that if you’re a cute, sexy girl, then that’s all that matters. In other words, style and appearance far outweigh the substance of what they write.

Sure, their good looks might be what appeals to a lot of misogynist geeks, but the reality is that these women write very competently about technology. You don’t have to be a programmer to write about tech. Mike Arrington and Corey Doctorow aren’t techies, but nobody runs around questioning their right to write about technology.

Using words like “princess” and “diva” to negatively class women participating in the tech scene reinforces privilege by reinforcing the idea that a woman has to work twice as hard to prove herself, especially if she is beautiful. It’s not enough that she’s participating. Now, she has to participate in exactly the way and manner that men want her to. She has to be conscious of the image she projects, not simply for her own good, but because for many readers, she represents her entire gender.

There are many kinds of women. Happy women. Sad women. Beautiful women. Ugly women. Smart women. Technical women. Nice women. Mean women. We want more women in tech. We want more woman programmers, more woman pundits, more woman critics, more woman writers, more woman presenters, more woman everything. And that means welcoming everyone, whether you feel like you can take them out for a beer or not.

Both Africa and the West need more women in tech. Continuing to stereotype western women in tech as princesses and divas only worsens the problem, instead of fixing it. Certainly, it gives no credit to the thousands of women that spend their entire lives developing new and exciting technologies.

* Parts of this post are excerpted from an email that I sent to Miquel before picking on him in public.