Friedman: No service: The story of African life

CHIEF'S ISLAND, Botswana — If you travel long enough and far enough — like by jet to Johannesburg, by prop plane to northern Botswana and then by bush plane deep into the Okavango Delta — you can still find it. It is that special place that on medieval maps would have been shaded black and labeled: "Here there be Dragons!" But today, it is the place where my BlackBerry, my wireless laptop and even my satellite phone gave me the same message: "No Service."

Yes, Dorothy, somewhere over the rainbow, there is still a "Land of No Service" — where the only "webs" are made by spiders, where the only "net" is the one wrapped around your bed to keep out mosquitoes, where the only "ring tones" are the scream of African fish eagles and the bark of baboons, where the only GPS belongs to the lioness instinctively measuring the distance between herself and the antelope she hopes will be her next meal, and where "connectivity" refers only to the intricate food chain that sustains this remarkable ecosystem.

I confess, I wasn't looking for the Land of No Service. But the Okavango Delta's managers and the Wilderness Trust — a South African conservation organization that runs safaris to support its nature restoration work — take the wilderness seriously. The staff at our camp on the northwestern tip of Chief's Island, the largest island in the delta, did have a radio, but otherwise the only sounds you heard were from Mother Nature's symphony, and the only colors were painted by the hand of God.

So, like it or not, coming here forces you to think about the blessings and curses of "connectivity." "No Service" is something travelers from the developed world pay for in order to escape e-mail.

For much of Africa, though, "No Service" is a curse — because without more connectivity, its people can't escape poverty.

Can there be a balance between the two? For the normally overconnected tourist, the first thing you notice in the Land of No Service is how quickly your hearing, smell and eyesight improve in an act of instant Darwinian evolution.

It is amazing how well you can hear when you don't have an iPod in your ears or how far you can see when you're not squinting at a computer screen. In the wild, the difference between hearing and seeing with acuity is the difference between survival and extinction for the animals and the difference between a rewarding experience and a missed opportunity for photographers and guides.

It was our guide spotting a half-eaten antelope lodged high in a tree that drew our attention to its predator, a leopard, calmly licking her paws nearby and then yawning from her midday meal. The cat's stomach was heaving up and down, still digesting her prey.

The leopard had suffocated the antelope — you could still see the marks on its neck — and then dragged it up the tree, holding it in her jaws, and placed the kill perfectly in the V between two branches. And there the antelope dangled, head on one side, dainty legs on the other, with half her midsection eaten away. The rest would be tomorrow's leopard lunch, stored high above where the hyenas could not get it.

But while maintaining "No Service" in the wild is essential for Africa's ecotourism industry, the rest of the continent desperately needs more connectivity. Eric Cantor, who runs Grameen Foundation's Application Laboratory in Uganda, explains what a huge difference cell phones and Internet access can make to people in Africa.

"A banana farmer previously limited to waiting for a buyer truck to pass his farm to sell the week's harvest can now use a mobile-phone marketplace to publicize the availability of his stock or to search for buyers who might be in the market or have truck transport available to a larger market," said Cantor.

"They can also compare going prices to gain more power in a negotiation. Teenagers too shy to ask parents about causes and symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases can research them privately. A farmer with no money who needs a remedy for the pest attacking her primary crop can find one that uses locally available materials, when they need it."

Botswana, about the size of Texas, luckily has enough diamonds to be able to turn 40 percent of its land into nature preserves.

Its urban connectivity with the global diamond exchanges enables it to maintain "No Service" in its wilderness.

Zimbabwe, by contrast, has become virtually a country of "No Service" after decades of dictatorship by Robert Mugabe, and, as a result, both its people and wildlife are endangered species.

The more African countries where "No Service" can be a choice, not a fate — an offering for the eco-tourist to enjoy, not a condition for the entrepreneur to overcome — the more hope that this continent will be able to enhance its natural wonders and its people at the same time.