Texting Across the Desert

A story of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia using technology to promote health and HIV/AIDS awareness.

By Rashid Khan - Peace Corps Volunteer: Namibia (2007-2009)

Hi, I'm Rashid. I served in the Peace Corps as an Information and Communication Technology Volunteer in the southern Africa nation of Namibia.

Namibia is a big country geographically, but in terms of population, it's very very small. To put it in perspective, it has about one fifth as many people as New Jersey, but it's 40 times larger. And, unlike New Jersey, it's very dry, and there are a lot of goats—a lot of goats.

One day, I was sitting in my house, in Namibia, reading a U.S.newspaper on my cell phone.

Oh, I should backtrack for a minute here. Yes, Africa has cell phones. In fact, every Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia has a cell phone, as well as every adult Namibian I knew, and most teenagers. Cell phone coverage reaches every major town in Namibia, and most of the minor ones, as well—even small villages.

And this isn't only Namibia. Cell phones are everywhere in Africa and even though one in four Africans has a cell phone, you rarely see anyone talking on them—you see, it's simply too expensive. Instead, everyone is text messaging. Text messaging, you see, is very cheap. For $10 U.S. dollars you can walk into a shop in Namibia, and walk out with a cell phone—not a very nice one, mind you, but a fully functional one—that has enough prepaid credit to send 100 text messages a day for three months.

So, back to reading the news on my phone; there was an article about a project in the U.S. running a text messaging hotline to answer sexual education questions.

This set off a few bells.

Hey, that could work in Namibia, a country where one in five people is HIV positive, and lack of knowledge is commonly cited as the leading factor in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. So, I spent a weekend tapping at my laptop keyboard, and by Monday I had a computer program than ran something of a virtual text messaging call center.

It was a simple system; a Namibian could send a text messaged sexual health question to the number, which was an old, mostly broken cell phone, attached to an old, mostly broken computer. The computer would look at a list of volunteers, and send the question to the volunteer that hadn't received one in the longest time. Essentially, the software established a 24-hour relationship between an asker and a volunteer, who would answer any question posed by the asker. We added a few Peace Corps volunteers to its list and took it for a spin.

The system worked well, and before long we were fielding thousands of text messaged questions a month—sending and receiving hundreds of SMSes a day from all over the country. People asked all sorts of things, mostly about pregnancy, HIV, and condoms, but they also asked questions about healthy relationships. We did our best to promote communication and healthy single partner relationships. But sometimes they asked about things we had no answer for, and would have to go off and research. To foster an open and honest dialogue, we kept everything strictly confidential on both sides. The volunteers may have learned more than anybody from these conversations. I built a web-based reporting tool to track keywords and usage, to give us an idea of what sorts of things we should be researching to stay ahead of the game.

I also submitted a proposal, which was accepted, to speak at the HIV Implementers conference—a U.S. government-sponsored event where people from all over the world come together to discuss how they are dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The idea was well received at the conference and helped build up enough steam to move us past the tinkering stage.

A friend at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got us a meeting with the country's largest cell service provider who, in turn, sponsored the project, providing free air time and hardware for connecting to the mobile network.

As I neared the end of service, we transitioned the project to a Namibian nonprofit organization called Lifeline Childline, who, with funding from UNICEF and help from eight Peace Corps Volunteers spread throughout the vastness of Namibia, continue to anonymously answer important sexual health question from people all over the country. 

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