Oumou Sy is a Senegalese fashion designer and the co-proprietor of Metissacana, the first West African Internet Café. World-Information.Org talked to her about the political and developmental dimension of her work, the relation of fashion and new technologies, and ingenious approaches to local appropriations of the Internet.
Q: You were invited to Vienna by a development organization. What were the reasons for your invitation?
A: I was invited to speak on issues of art, culture and new technologies Ė and also to make them more intelligible and consequently to enable future collaborations on development projects.
Q: So you were invited for developmental reasons?
A: Yes, for reasons of development and evolution - and to find out in which ways the arts and culture may be supported, and how, at the same time, new technologies can be developed.
Q: You are a fashion designer as well as the co-proprietor of an Internet Café called Metissacana. How did this come about, and do you see a connection between these two occupations?
Well, for me they go hand in hand Ė fashion is always concerned with the new, the recent, and Internet and new technologies signify progress. I think that by combining fashion and new technologies, we will reach our aim more swiftly. And we will be able to create more advantages more quickly since weíll always be at the heart of innovation. Weíre always in the present, we have fresh ideas, we are open toward the world. There are no barriers, no enclaves, which is why I reckon that Internet and fashion should collaborate.
Q: Your Internet Café was the first in West Africa. How did you get the idea and what were peopleís reactions to it? Did you have to struggle with technical difficulties?
A: No, because Senegal is technically very advanced compared to other African countries. Senegal was the first West African country to be hooked up to the Internet, and only six months later we opened up the Metissacana, Senegalís first Cyber Café. We are a provider just like Public Netbase, we connect people and companies, we create and host websites, and people visit the café to get on the Internet. The Metissacana is also a cultural center. We organize events: fashion weeks, the carnival, and also (web)conferences. Last year, we were the first in Africa to make possible the experience of on-line democracy during the campaign for the presidential elections: there were debates between the candidates, and Internet users and the public that gathered on Metissacanaís terrace; the results of polls and the final election results were published on the web; and people could even give their opinion and vote via Internet.
Q: Via Internet?
A: Absolutely. This made the whole electoral campaign a lot more transparent.
Q: Do you consider your work political?
A: No, I donít really immerse myself in politics, I donít even know how politics work. I am somebody who knows nothing about politics. But it was simply a matter of telling people, the electoral campaign is going on, here are the politicians, talk to them. There was a radio station that broadcast these discussions throughout the world. With Metissacana, we were the first here to put a radio station on the net, even before France. And it was this radio that broadcast the campaign throughout the world and on the Internet, and this helped development a lot. Yet I was never there when these discussions were on, I always arranged to be out of town or out of the country Ė because I donít want to support any particular political party, I want to be impartial.
Q: So there were only little difficulties setting up Metissacana?
A: The difficulties we had with installing Metissacana resulted from it being the first, thatís just normal. Those who helped us to get installed didnít know if it was going to work out or not. It did work out. We have already started the project Cyberbus, and now we are going with this bus from village to village to give demonstrations of the Internet. We are even going to where there is no telephone or electricity, we just bring our electrical troop, several hundred meters of telephone cable that we attach to the telegraph poles that are far away on the thoroughfares, our computers and multi-media equipment.
Q: How do people react to these demonstrations?
A: Very well, they are very interested. If we start a discussion about the Internet at 9pm, it will go on until 4am in the morning. It is always us who stop the people, because they would just go on and on.
Q: So you do perceive the Internet as a (pro)motor of development?
A: Yes. Even for the whole of Africa.
Q: Some people view it as a large obstacle for a wider distribution of the Internet that a basic supply with electricity and telephone has to be granted in the first place. What is your take on this?
A: The problem with the connection of whole countries to the Internet is that the government has to get involved, it shouldnít be left to private companies. There are people who strongly believe in this. If for example we manage to connect 7000 villages in Senegal, not only do we create 7000 jobs, but these jobs will generate other jobs because there will be more education coming out of this education, and this will create even more jobs etc. etc Ė people wonít be forced to live in enclaves any more. They will be up to date with what is happening in the big cities. We have cooperated on a project with an Internet telecenter on the coast. In the past, a lot of the fishermen there drowned in unexpected stormy weather. Now they have the possibility to consult the marine weather forecast before they go to sea. There arenít any more accidents now.
There is also a very high rate of infant mortality. We have a team that regularly weighs all the babies in different areas of the city. The people in this team fill out files on their computers, which they e-mail to the pediatrician at the hospital in Saint-Louis. The pediatrician takes a look at the files, and if he notices that the weight of one particular baby is diminishing, he clicks on the file and the baby and his parents are summoned to the hospital where the child is examined. So the rate of infant mortality has also gone down.
Generally every village has its own needs, and will thus make use of the Internet accordingly. The people who have invented the tool Internet certainly have not invented it for what others make of it. For it is a tool that may be of use to a lot of people, and everybody has a different conception of it. It is not that people from Western countries are able to foresee every possible usage of the net, just because they are modern and have everything. People here may not be educated, but they do have enough understanding and ingenuity to make something of the Internet that those who ďdesignedĒ it couldnít create because they just werenít able to think of everything. Innovation isnít confined to big cities, it may as well take place in small villages.
Q: What are your plans and aims, where would you like to see yourself in five years?
A: I donít know what I shall do in five years, only God knows. I know what I feel like doing right now. Thatís all. I never prearrange things, I even havenít planned yet what I will do tomorrow.
Q: And what are your projects for the time being?
A: To connect the 7000 villages in Senegal to the Internet. And this is not only an Internet project, but I would also like to establish health care centers and wells so that these villages have potable water Ė this is what goes on in my head at the moment, but I donít know if I can realize all of it immediately.
Q: Do you work with the UNESCO?
A: No, I rely on my own resources. If the UNESCO comes up to me, thatís fine. Well, I do work with the UNESCO in the sense that they have supplied materials for my fashion design and the instruction of women in this context. They have not yet financed any of my projects Ė but maybe I simply donít know on which door to knock to speed things up.