We owe it to rural communities to find broadband solution

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mount kenya
The view from the top of Mount Kenya in 2013 was cool. The lack of electricity and running water awaiting Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller upon returning to Nairobi was not. While that is a temporary example, scarcity is a thing. People who do without are impacted in significant ways. (Courtesy of Rebecca Miller/Amanda Underwood)

At the end of my first year living in Kenya, I ran a marathon, and then, almost immediately, turned around and spent six days climbing Mount Kenya.

Truthfully, it was dumb to do all of that at once — although the six-day, purposefully slow-and-steady exploration of Mount Kenya is still one of my favorite memories.

No water

I looked forward to electricity and warm, running water when I returned to my Nairobi apartment. What I got, instead, was almost a week of no power and no running water. I had to trudge to my friend’s place down the road every time I wanted to shower. The nearest water source was down several flights of steps, requiring labor-intensive maneuvering to get water to wash dishes, clothes and to flush the toilet.

Leaving Kenya the first time was gut-wrenching. I wasn’t ready to leave. But that week was a bit of a wake-up call. Get thee back to electricity and running water, it told me, and re-group.

Coincidentally, I stopped in Scotland to visit some friends on the way back. The first thing they said to me when I got off the plane: “Um, you’re not going to believe this, but there’s no water in the city right now.”

I shot them a dirty look, and said, “I don’t care where we have to go, but I am getting a shower. Please.” I got that shower. I wasn’t laughing then, but it’s amusing now.

Making do

These things have stayed with me — rather than find whatever it is that I’m lacking and fix the problem, I tend to gut through it.

It’s a combination of growing up on a farm. You’re used to doing things by yourself. Improvising. Trouble-shooting. Whether it’s a lack of time, money, resources or experience, farmers make up for it in sheer chutzpah, sometimes.

And part of it comes from living where you don’t have things and you make do. Nairobi is a cake-walk compared to most places. There are people that live off of sorghum or millet as a diet staple, with occasional vegetables or meat to supplement. Electricity or running water? Right. Basic medical care, education or infrastructure? Dream on.

I’ve since stopped myself from saving every plastic Ziploc bag. But when I bought a stove recently, I wanted a gas stove. Why? Because if the power went out, I wanted to be able to make myself a cup of hot tea, at the very least.

Scarcity

I have been thinking about these experiences a lot, in relation to our broadband series. Our stories don’t solve the problem. They point them out, and hopefully, show how some are trying to address it. There are no solutions. Yet.

It looks different, but often, this gut-through-it mentality is how we cope with the equivalent obstacles where we are in rural communities.

There’s a name for it: the psychology of scarcity. Researchers have studied it in terms of poverty. They compared different people, and they compared the same people, faced with different circumstances. The people studied varied in demographics and geographic locations — some were Ivy League students, and other were sugarcane farmers in India.

The results, fairly consistently, are that people think differently when there is scarcity. They are stressed and make poor decisions, an example being “payday loans,” high interest loans that may seem to solve a problem in the moment, but end up saddling someone with higher debt.

“What’s most striking is that these findings make a very strong case for the idea that people who look very bad in conditions of scarcity are just as capable as the rest of us when scarcity does not impose itself on their minds,” said Eldar Shafir, a Harvard University professor and researcher, in a 2014 interview with the American Psychological Association.

He used the example of talking on cell phones in cars. It has been proved that the act causes impairment, but people don’t realize to what extent their distraction impacts them.  “People know they’re busy and distracted, but the impact and the consequences of that distraction are much more impressive than we realize,” he said.

Life without broadband

Limited broadband is not exactly the same. But the principle applies. We deal with it, and we don’t think about the consequences, because it’s just life.

We’ve had stories shared of people who cope with poor internet service. Their children have to go to great lengths to finish homework, and they have to make do as well. A school system didn’t even have reliable internet access until last year, as well as cell phone service. We all have these stories.

In all of this, we cope. We make do. We often don’t think about the residual stresses it puts on us. But how does it affect us? How is it impacting our future?

This is not OK. Government plans and funding seem to fall short. Private companies are doing what they can. But something needs to give. We, as a society, need to do better for rural communities. I don’t know what the answer is. But I hope this conversation brings us closer to a solution.

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Click to read more from the 3-part series.

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