You Can Do It! Learn How to Extend the Internet to Your Community Thumbnail
Community Networks 6 May 2020

You Can Do It! Learn How to Extend the Internet to Your Community

By Lillian AchomGuest AuthorAccessPlus

Every day, people around the world are caring for their neighbors by bringing them online. A lifeline for so many, the global COVID-19 has shown us that the Internet is now more important than ever. Yet nearly half the world’s population still has no access.

Driven by the desire to connect their communities in any way they can, people around the world are getting involved and building networks in new and innovative ways that complement traditional Internet/telecommunication access solutions. Do-it-yourself solutions built by the community, for the community.

Anyone can help build the Internet.

Not sure where to start? There’s a whole community of people out there who can help you get started. Together you’ll be able to learn how to build a network to serve your community (you CAN do it!), help talk to your government about sound policies to connect your community, or share new ideas. Maybe you’ll be able to create a new solution to connect people to the open Internet.

Your expertise counts. Everyone can get involved and learn from one another.

Need more inspiration? Here’s a story from Lillian Achom. Lillian started out with nerves and self-doubt about what she could contribute, but over time she has become a shining example that connecting the world starts with the drive to do it.

Lillian Achom at the Third Summit on Community Networks in Africa, in the village of Zithulele in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.
Image ©Nyani Quarmyne/Panos Pictures/Internet Society

Your Experiences Make You an Expert

Have you ever desperately wanted to know about something, but the thought of asking the question and having those around you in the Information Communications & Technology (ICT) space question your very presence prevents you from raising your hand? Were you embarrassed and thought that you might be the only uninformed person in the room, so you opt instead to quietly discover the answer on your own?

I know many people, especially women, who can relate to this experience. But what I’ve come to learn is that in the community networks movement, we are all equal, and everybody believes in everybody! When you’re working in the Internet way, it’s about the whole community, working together in partnership. Everybody has a role to play.

I did not know this when I attended a project management course in 2016 as an AFRINIC FIRE Africa grantee. During the course, I learned of the Zenzeleni Community Network in Mankosi, Eastern Cape, South Africa. I heard Carlos Rey-Moreno, of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), describe their work with the Zenzeleni community, and it really captured my attention. I envisioned a group of passionate people in rural communities connecting themselves to the Internet, collectively managing their network, and economically empowering the whole community. But given my background in network engineering, how was I only hearing this for the first time? And then to learn from another presenter that a community network has existed in Gulu, Uganda since 2007. I come from Gulu! Clearly, I was not alone in this. As someone in the ICT space, I felt I was not doing enough to keep myself up-to-date with the quickly-evolving technologies. I told myself I would find out. This would be my personal mission.

It was at the 2017 Africa Internet Summit in Nairobi, organized by the Internet Society and APC, that I was drawn to one of the free materials at the Internet Society booth, “Supporting the Creation and Scalability of Affordable Access Solutions: Understanding Community Networks in Africa,” authored by Carlos Rey-Moreno. I was so excited to find this! Once again, his words inspired me, and they were telling me that I needed to do more, to get involved. I read the document line-by-line, underlining key points, but I knew I wouldn’t fully understand until I visited the community network in my hometown of Gulu.

Thanks to BOSCO Uganda, the peer learning sessions at the community network sites in Gulu did not disappoint. I visited four different sites, and this is where everything I had only read about made sense for the first time.

I now had a deeper understanding of community networks, but my role with community networks did not become clear until I met the community networks family in 2018, at the Internet Society- and APC-hosted Summit on Community Networks in Africa. The event was so inclusive and welcoming, and it was there I discovered that there were many people like me, at different stages of the learning journey. This whole thing was about learning, and everybody was learning. This made me feel at home. For the first time I did not feel alone.

I wanted to stay in the back of the training room. I was supposed to just be watching and learning, but they asked me to be part of hands-on training. I was so nervous! That was really powerful to me, and it’s a spirit that makes people come together and brings out the best in people. It was humbling to think my opinion mattered, that I was good enough.

At the Summit, there was no judgment or discouragement for not knowing something, only support and encouragement. This is something I felt from the whole community. Whether you are technical or not, everybody is capable of something great, and everybody has something to share. They seemed to have one goal in mind and that is: no one is left behind.

Little did I know my efforts would come to prepare me for a new role; a role I couldn’t have imagined two years ago – managing the establishment of women-led community networks in four different countries! Kenya, Senegal, and Morocco, and another one set to be built in Namibia.

This opportunity was going to allow me to experience the entire process of establishing a community network. I had gained new confidence from the 2018 Summit on Community Networks in Africa and everybody I met there, and coupled with the assurance that I had experts around me ready to support me, I embraced the opportunity.

Three years later, I can say the efforts and sacrifices have been worth it. I have seen the difference a community network can make first-hand – everybody learning from each other and trying new things to help the community grow. Community networks may sound technical, but anybody can do it with help from the community. Regardless of background and experience, anybody can learn at any time. You just need passion and a willingness to learn and ask questions. Get involved. Join us!

Learn more about the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and our work with community networks.

Access to the Internet has never been more important. We will be featuring the work of communities around the world to keep the Internet open and globally connected. It has no borders.

Cover image ©Lillian Achom Pictures and used with permission

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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