This inspiring story is from Abigail's Web site, which I originally linked to at http://www.iaf.nl/~abigail/. A while later, I found the page had moved, to http://www.ny.fnx.com/abigail/, so I updated my link. A while later still, I found it had disappeared from there, too, but this time I couldn't find where it had gone for ages. Then it was briefly at http://cthulhu.mandrake.net/~abigail/, but it disappeared from there, too. It turned up again, at http://www.foad.org/~abigail/, for a while, then vanished from there!
I've given up hunting it down (the Web really is too ephemeral). Instead, because it is such a good story, I don't want to risk ever losing it, so I've mirrored it here on my own site.
The hospital Rebecca works in has just opened its WWW pages. They look flashy. A background colour in the house-style, pictures of the hospital itself, and a sound file from one of the doctors, stating that it is a fun hospital and children should not be afraid. Some silly games to play, and links to other hospitals in the country. Rebecca clicks with her mouse, and sees again a page mostly containing pictures, this time of room C212. Nice pictures, she thinks, but who cares? She takes a deep breath. This could not have been the intention of WWW, Rebecca thinks. Where is the useful information? All she could find were the opening hours of the gift shop.
Rebecca leans back and looks at her bookcase. A huge pile of files looks back. They are the notes she made when she studied children's diseases in Africa. For two years she travelled through the continent, talking to native doctors. She inventoried the different diseases, taking notes how the doctors cured them with the available means. It was only partially put on computer disk yet, mostly to write some articles with it. She is well-known for her work, but she feels sorry she cannot give the material to those who need it.
Suddenly, she sits straight, and stares at her screen, still showing the picture of room C212. Should I? she thinks, Could I?
Mtshali mourns. He is the doctor in a small African village. This morning he witnessed how a young child died in the arms of its mother. The nearest hospital is five days walking; the child would never had made it. Despite a whole life of experience, Mtshali was powerless; he never saw the symptoms the child had before.
In the light of the setting sun, Mtshali sits alone, staring at the horizon. Someone must know! he thinks, If only I could reach him. Mtshali realizes it could take many deaths if he has to find a cure all by himself.
Rebecca did not hesitate much. She designed a strict format all files should follow, so people could benefit from its consistency, and the files could be searched by a search engine. She found a programmer willing to assist her.
It took many weeks to type in all the files, and to convert what was already on disk to the new format. She spent many evenings working until midnight. Everyone wondered how she had the energy to do it. There are no graphics! they said, It is only dull science; people want cheesy backgrounds and silly sounds! But Rebecca works on, often side-by-side with the programmer.
And one day, it is finished, and Rebecca opens her database on diseases of African children to the world.
Mtshali walks. He left his village at four in the morning, and it is a seven hour walk to the nearest school. His thoughts are with the young girl who has the same symptoms as the child that died a few months ago. He felt powerless, not knowing what to do to save the child. But he has heard of the new thing they have at the school. It should know many answers. Mtshali does not know what it is, or how it works; it even scares him a little. But he is desperate, and willing to find out whether it can help.
When Mtshali arrives at the school, he talks with the head of the school, explaining his problem, and that he had heard of this device knowing a lot of answers at the school. Would the school master help him? The school master assigns a girl of the highest grade to assist Mtshali in finding the information about the disease.
The girl takes Mtshali to the school's computer corner. Next to the electricity generator stands an old PC and an old VT100. Both were used in the early eighties at a European university, and donated to the third world when it upgraded to graphical workstations. The girl switches the computer on, and the monitor slowly comes to life. Mtshali holds his breath as the letters appear on the screen. The girl takes the radio device next to the computer, and makes a short wave connection to a server a few hundred kilometers away. That server has a 2400 baud modem connection to a machine in the capital, from which the rest of the Internet is reached via satellite. But Mtshali does not know that. All he sees are the messages from the server coming on the screen, letter by letter.
The clear voice of the girl makes Mtshali stop pondering. You have a sick child, and do not know what to do with it, do you? Mtshali nods and starts talking about the symptoms. The girl politely interrupts Mtshali, We can only do one thing at a time. The girl logs in to the remote server and starts a simple, text-based browser. Mtshali sits down next to the girl, fascinated with what is happening. The girl, who obviously has some experience, connects to one of the web search tools, and after a few tries, she finds Rebecca's database. Maybe we can find your answer here, the girl says, letting Mtshali read the screen as well. Mtshali can only nod.
They find the search tool Rebecca and the programmer developed, and with the help of the girl, Mtshali enters the relevant data. A push on a button, and slowly the pages describing various diseases and their cures appear on the screen. Mtshali reads and reads and reads, making mental and paper notes, while the girl navigates. The setting sun forces them to stop.
The next morning, Mtshali walks back to his village, but this time filled with hope.
Some weeks later, Rebecca receives a letter from Africa. She has some trouble reading the handwriting. It is from an old doctor, thanking her and explaining how the database saved the life of a child. It also contains a description of how the disease affected the child, and what else the doctor did beside what was mentioned in her pages.
The same night, Rebecca updates her pages.
© Copyright 1995 by Abigail Martian.