By Tim Cocks
LACOR CAMP, Uganda, July 12 (Reuters) - Refugees forced into crowded camps by northern Uganda’s two-decade civil war need many things: food, doctors, toilets, bore holes for drinking water, schools — and computers?
A new charity project wants to launch Uganda’s long-isolated war victims into cyberspace, arguing that an Internet link to the outside world will give them a much-needed voice.
The project uses specially-designed PCs with such low energy needs they can be powered by solar panels or even bicycle pedals.
One and half million Ugandans live in congested, unsanitary camps after fleeing their homes during a conflict that killed tens of thousands. Most lack adequate water and sanitation, let alone electricity to run energy-hungry computers.
"The computers are designed specifically for use in rural environments ... with no power," said Kristin Peterson, co-founder of San Francisco-based Inveneo, the organisation that developed the machines and has projects in six African nations.
Architects of the camp project, installed in April this year, know it may raise eyebrows.
"You could argue: why would you give them the Internet, when people need a well? The answer is: if you’ve got access to the Internet, you can ask for a well," Guz Zuehlke, the head of the project, told Reuters by telephone.
The desktop computers lack fancy applications — they cannot play DVDs or 3D games. But they have colour screens, flash memory and can run Microsoft Office applications and explore the Web.
They use 6-8 watts of power, against 100 watts for the average desktop, connecting to a broadband link in Uganda’s northern town of Gulu using long distance (WiFi) transmitters.
Computer networks installed so far in seven camps benefit mostly community workers like nurses, teachers, aid workers and church leaders, Zuehlke said.
As well as the Internet, they provide free telephone using the Web to carry the voice traffic from installed handsets. While some camps have mobile reception, phone calls remain expensive in Uganda.
At Lacor camp — a maze of crumbling thatched huts huddled tightly together — primary school children play football on a dusty pitch while others recite multiplication tables in a concrete classroom with paint peeling off the walls.
In the school office, teacher Sister Adio Ventorina gazes at a screen and clicks away with a mouse partly obscured by the sleeve of her nun’s habit.
"With this I can look up information to use in geography class and email other teachers in camps. Some children have started using it," she said, adding that communication with outsiders used to be tough.
Ventorina has already emailed aid agencies requesting more boreholes to be drilled, she said.
On Saturday, Ugandans will mark the first anniversary of peace talks between Uganda’s government and Lords Resistance Army rebels that many northerners hope will end the conflict and let them return home and rebuild their country.
They have long complained of feeling isolated and the United Nations has described the chaos in the war-ravaged region as the world’s worst "forgotten emergency".
"Now I can keep contact with family members like my uncle in Kampala and with the world," said Robert Komakech a 21-year-old student, as he browsed an Arsenal Football Club fansite.
Zuehlke hopes the computer networks, designed for the emergency, will remain in place after a peace deal, when the urban settlements created by the camps become trading centres.
Inveneo last year set up a similar project in peaceful rural western Uganda.
The explosion of information, technology and communications (ICT) this century has sparked debate over how to address a "digital divide" excluding poor regions. Two billion people worldwide lack access to ICT, Inveneo says.