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I'd always believed that technology was one of the few international languages on this planet, along with Bob Marley and football, but when I tried to explain my plans to the woman behind the counter at the internet café in Kaolack, I realised that not only do the French have different keyboards, they have completely different terminology too.
'I wonder if you can help me,' I ventured in my best French, and she inclined her head in a noncommittal kind of way. 'I've got a little computer here, and a connecting cable, and I'd like to hook it up to one of your PCs, copy some files across, and then email them. Is this possible?'
She looked at me as if I'd just asked her whether she sold rainbow-coloured camels, and burst into something that was once probably French, but which contained precisely no words that I could recognise. I took a deep breath, tried repeating my request, and again got nothing but utter confusion. This, I realised, was getting both of us absolutely nowhere, so I smiled at her as best I could and escaped into the road.
That evening I was at a bit of a loose end, so I thought I might as well try again. There's something about uploading my writing that combines satisfaction and relief; once it's on the server it's safe, and it also means people back home can get their heads round what I'm actually doing here (something I often wonder myself). This time there was a man behind the counter, so I tried my well-rehearsed French banter on him; yet again I got little more than a furrowed brow, though at least this time he looked more interested in what I was trying to say.
'OK, I tell you what,' I said. 'Can I show you what I want to do, and you can watch me do it?'
'All right,' he replied, introducing himself as Mustapha and pointing me towards his computer. I figured I had to get him interested on a technical level; if there's one thing that techies love, it's technology, and I doubted he'd seen anything quite like my pocket Palm computer before. I was right.
The first thing that blew his mind was when I wrote on the screen of my Palm; his face lit up as the word bonjour appeared in front of his eyes. The next thing that made his jaw drop was my fold-out keyboard, which he couldn't believe; he was so impressed he called his friends over, and they all ooh-ed and ahh-ed in chorus as I unfolded it and plugged it in.
Sensing the crowd's interest, I seized the moment by explaining in halting French that I was going to take the stuff I'd written on my foldout keyboard, copy it to Mustapha's computer, and then put it onto the Web, so anyone could read it from anywhere in the world. They all laughed, completely caught up in the game, and clearly thinking I was mad.
'I am keen to learn what you know,' Mustapha said, as I started copying files from my Palm to his PC. 'I only know about fixing computers, I don't know about what you are doing.'
'Well, it's quite easy,' I said, and started to explain how I was doing it, throwing in the odd bit of jargon that I hoped he'd recognise and generally involving him in the whole process. He loved it; I'd struck the raw techie nerve, and we were transcending cultural and language barriers.
'Now that I've copied the files to your machine, I'm going to copy them to my website like this,' I said, firing up a little window with which I could talk to my server in California. 'See? There, they're copying. And now... look, there they are, on the Web.'
And with that I held up my Palm screen and showed him one of the articles I'd written, and then showed him the same page on the Internet. He couldn't believe it – as far as he was concerned I'd just performed magic, and he looked at me, looked at the screen, and laughed his head off, explaining to his friends in Wolof what I'd just done. They murmured their appreciation.
'Can you come back tomorrow?' he asked. 'I'd really like you to show this to the boss.'
'I'm afraid I can't,' I said. 'I'm off to Banjul in the morning.'
'That's a shame,' he said. 'I'd love you to teach us how you did that. I only know how to fix computers.'
'Well, that's an area I know nothing about,' I said. 'I have no idea how these things work inside, so you're way cleverer than me in that department.'
'The computer I have been working on was submerged in water for a month,' said Mustapha proudly. 'I have just got it working after two days' repairing work.'
'A month underwater?' I said. 'Blimey, now that really is magic.' And I shook his hand with feeling, reckoning that anyone who can resurrect a computer from that sort of treatment is pretty good at his job. From computers to old cars, the West Africans manage to keep things going well beyond the stage where they'd be thrown away in the West, and although portable computers and Internet publishing might be cool, people like Mustapha genuinely make the world go round.
What a pity, then, that the regulars at the café should find my magic more impressive than his; I guess familiarity breeds contempt.