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For the youth of the West African nation of Ghana, a country on the margins of the global economy, the growth of the Internet in the 1990s was full of promise — the promise of sharing in the prosperity of the information age, and of forging meaningful connections with the rest of the world, politically, economically, and socially.But when Internet connectivity finally arrived after the turn of the 21st century, many of these optimistic youth struggled to form connections with the foreigners they encountered online.New research by School of Information professor Jenna Burrell looks under the surface of Internet culture in Ghana, exploring why many of Ghana’s hopes went unrealized and how Ghanaians have responded.Burrell’s book , based on seven years of ethnographic research in Ghana, is being released this week.“As the Internet was growing and spreading in the US in the mid- to late-90s, Ghana simply didn't have the bandwidth,” Burrell explained.
Although Ghana’s elite already had Internet access and international connections, the more widespread availability of public Internet cafés provided the first opportunity for many ordinary Ghanaians — especially youth — to interact with the wider world.
“The Internet provided opportunities for making faraway places very tangible and personal,” said Burrell.
“This thrill was evident in the most popular of Internet activities among youth — collecting pen pals.” Burrell observed young Ghanaians pursuing a variety of relationships with foreigners online, including same-aged platonic friendships, romantic relationships, older adults to appeal to for advice, patrons offering financial support, and even business partnerships.
Burrell tells a story of a burgeoning online friendship between Fauzia, a young Ghanaian woman, and an Egyptian man.
While chatting online, Fauzia mentioned “ok, my phone is giving me problems and I will be very grateful if you could send me money to get a better phone or if you could send me a new phone.” After repeating the request, “I didn’t see him online again,” said Fauzia.