Internet takes ancient craft global
Ghanaian is the official stool carver for the king, but it's his connection to the Web that's tripled his income.
KUMASI, GHANA — Not much has changed in the royal Asante court of Ghana, West Africa. The king still leads a colorful entourage, including the keeper of the king's gold, an umbrella bearer, the official shaver, clothier, nail clipper, food-taster, and fanner. Then there are royal oddities who have found favor: eunuchs, a family of Asante albinos, and the royal executioner, who's been out of a job for some time.
Trailing toward the back is Nana Frimpong, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II's official woodcarver. Mr. Frimpong perhaps best represents Ghana's drive toward Internet connectivity - a way to stave off a continent-wide information famine.
After a day of carving official stools for his king, Frimpong takes his weekly trek from Kumasi to coastal Accra to pick up a check. The money comes largely from US customers who buy Frimpong's wood-carved stools, masks, and statues via an Internet arts website.
King Tutu praises Frimpong as a national model of how citizens can bypass dire economies.
"There are a lot of Nana Frimpongs in the Asante nation," says Tutu. "Many can be helped through the Internet, and the solution begins with public Internet centers and also private enterprise, like Nana has accessed."
Frimpong sells his wares through Novica.com, one of a handful of websites that offer crafts and artwork from developing countries.
The Los Angeles-based firm, launched in 1998 and affiliated with National Geographic, posts websites for artisans in 12 regions, along with photos, biographies, and descriptions of their work. These artisans say they receive substantially more than they would hawking wares to tourists in town squares. And without a middleman, customers pay less than retail.
"To me, it's interesting that the prime instrument of globalization - the Internet - is helping to maintain and promote local culture," says Alisa Johnson, a Washington, D.C., legal editor who bought two Frimpong stools over the Internet last year. "I liked knowing something about the artist I'm buying from, in that it gives greater meaning to what I place in my home. And I liked that much of the money went directly to the artist."
Frimpong recalls the day a woman entered his Kumasi shop, bought three masks, and mentioned the possibility of selling through the Internet - if his wares were uniform in quality. "I didn't know what she was talking about," says Frimpong, who doesn't own a computer or have access to a telephone line.
The adventure has since tripled Frimpong's income, making him somewhat of a celebrity among Manhyia palace regulars. And he employs a staff of 15 carvers to keep up with demand. "It's changed my life," says Frimpong, seated in his boxed, blue-walled home lit by two dim bulbs. "And I bought a car."
For Frimpong to have found such success through Internet revolution is no mean accomplishment here in Ghana, where 100,000 telephones barely service 19 million people. Getting online requires borrowing a computer - whether at a business, a public telecenter, or a friend's. Often, people procure a free Hotmail or Yahoo! account by paying a few coins to a university student.
Although all 54 African countries have Internet servers now - up from four 11 years ago - only 500,000 Africans have Internet access, excluding South Africa, according to the UN Economic Commission of Africa. Still, a disproportionate number of African users are white, affluent and educated, following rifts that line the digital divide.
"The government can't provide all the solutions," says King Tutu. "Private industry, like artisan websites, can provide some assistance. And education is the key to progress."
African telecenters are becoming a one-stop solution for education and business transactions. They are stocked with phones, scanners, photocopying and fax machines, and all-important Internet connections.
There are more than 20 pilot telecenter projects in Africa, according to the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. That number is in addition to a jumble of initiatives devoted to boosting connectivity in Africa.
King Tutu has his own initiatives toward modernizing and educating his citizenry. Since assuming the throne in 1999, people say, the king has demonstrated what those before him have lacked: vision and a deeper understanding of the world.
Educated in both Ghana and Britain, the king held positions in finance at Mutual of Omaha Insurance and London-based Ox. He later formed his own company in Ghana, Transpomech International Ltd.
"I'm very concerned about creating work for people, because if they have work, they can contribute to their children's welfare," says Tutu, the 16th Asantehene, King of the Asantes, which is the largest and most powerful tribal ethnic group in Ghana.
"The government can't produce all the jobs, and the government can't educate all the people. There needs to be a unified effort."
Tutu's gift of charm - a certain radiance and strict adherence to tradition, while setting his eye on broadband access - has inspired both loyalty and motivation among subjects, especially Frimpong.
"I carve with great care, for my king is not a small king," says Frimpong, who has been carving since he was a teen-ager.
"When the British came, they took away everything good about Ghana. I've been angry all my life, and have resented that. But now, Westerners are appreciating my work, even fascinated with it. Everything comes full circle."