Instant Messaging in Africa:
Real-time Conversations over Satellite

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By Mark Krueger, Christian and Missionary Alliance
Posted: 4/26/2004

Communications have certainly changed in the 20 years that I have served as a missionary with the Christian & Missionary Alliance in West Africa. When we first arrived in the country of Mali, we had no access to phones. It would take at least three months for us to write a letter and then get a response back. Our link to the world around us was through the BBC via short-wave. When we returned to start our second term we brought with us a new computer, a Toshiba 1200 double floppy disk with no hard drive. We were on the cutting edge! Still it took months to send and receive correspondence and phones were only available in the major cities.

Upon returning to Africa for our third term, we brought a "fast" 486 processor with Windows 3.11. We didn't even bother asking to put a modem in as we figured we would have no use for one of those things anyway. About half way through the term we started to hear about a thing called Electronic Mail or E-Mail. We also heard the term 'the Web' thrown around and wondered what was all this about. We found out that email could be a good thing and so got someone to send us out a modem and got hooked up with CompuServe. What a difference that started to make. Our children were attending an MK boarding school in Côté d'Ivoire and we were able to start sending them regular updates via e-mail and to hear about things going on there too. We also began to get in touch with our families on a more regular basis. The internet was still out of our reach here.

As we began our fourth term, we found ourselves in a remote area without any real phone system except for one at the post office. We had to travel an hour's drive to the nearest large city to do email and we also began to have internet access there. However, that system was very temperamental and so sometimes we would go and spend the entire day trying to connect without success.

It was at this point we heard about the RBGAN satellite modems. We decided to investigate and when we heard about their features and the fairly reasonable price of using them, we decided to go ahead and get two to start with for our missionaries living in remote locations. We were so pleased to be able to sit in our own homes and do email. We were also glad that we didn't have to wonder every time whether the connection would work or if it would break in the middle of a transfer.

We had used the system for about a month or so when I remembered something about MSN Instant Messaging. We knew that with it you could "chat" in real time with people all over the world at the same time. We decided to try it out, we have four children, two are studying in the U.S.A. and two are attending a MK school in Senegal. So we had our kids all get signed up for the MSN Instant Messaging. Basically, that means getting a free Hotmail account and then downloading the program software to their local computers. We did ours at a cybercafe as it would have been too costly to download via the satellite modem. Once we did that, we sent an email out to our kids and told them to be online on a certain date and time. We were wondering if this would be really expensive since we pay by the bytes not by time on the RBGAN modem. So we were prepared to cut it off quick if that was the case.

However, we found that if we just used the simple instant messaging format of typing and responding the cost was kept very low. We figured that we could do up to two hours online and it would come out less than $10.00 on our bill. That is quite a bit cheaper than doing a conference phone call on an international line. We were also able to 'talk' with all of our kids at the same time and they could chat back and forth too. This tool has really come in handy for us now in that there have been a few times that our kids needed to have an extended time to talk through some things that doing a simple email would not have been sufficient.

So we have gone from three months to less than 30 seconds to have responses to questions we raise. We would recommend this way of communication. It shouldn't take the place of regular e-mail and other correspondence but it is nice to have when we want to talk with our kids or friends or family. In fact our oldest daughter is right now in Thailand waiting for us to "talk" on MSN later this week. So if you have any questions let us know. You may contact us at info@humaninet.org.

Mark Krueger
April 2004

For further information and assistance, contact us at info@humaninet.org.

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