Stereotypes have it that the older you are, the worse you are at navigating the Internet. That is, when you are at all. And indeed in Azerbaijan, elderly surfing the web or juggling smartphones are not a common sight.
Access to the Internet has soared since the turn of the century from 0.1 percent of the population in 2000 to 17 percent in 2008 and in 2016 Freedom House set at 77 percent the Internet penetration among the 9.7 million Azerbaijanis. Usage however is not evenly spread and it remains more the exclusive domain of the young, urban, male generation - only 16 percent of men over 46 years of age are connected and a bare 8 percent of women masters the world wide web.
Resulova Ruhangiz is the voice outside the choir. The 75-year-old, who goes by Ofelya as she was called by her colleagues at the local polyclinic where she worked as a registration clerk for 40 years, regularly surfs the web in her native Sheki, a city in north-west Azerbaijan. A computer and access to the broadband have proved essential to bridge the geographic gap between her and her large family - most of her five children, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren live scattered in the country, the majority being based in the capital Baku.
As someone born and raised in the Soviet Union, person-to-person communication was alien to Ofelya until her early fifties. Telephones were a rarity in most Soviet homes until the 1960s, and in the rural areas for years after, and when they became more common, making a phone call required bags of patience.
“We had to go to the post office, tell the operator the number we needed to call, then go home and wait to be connected,” she recalls. “Those without a landline had to fix a specific day and time to use the office’s telephone. If you had an urgent call you had to pay more to be connected directly from the post office. It got easier in the 1980s but even then not for every family in Sheki.”
Come the 2000s, Ofelya went digital. For her grandchildren. In 2001 her grand-daughter Aysel was accepted into the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX), a scholarship program for European and Eurasian students to spend an academic year in the United States, living with a family and attending an American high school. It was a splendid opportunity, but the US are far away from Sheki. Too far away.
Back then there was one single internet cafe’ in Sheki. Ofelya started going to the small outlet twice a week to write e-mails. Rather, she would dictate to the owner what to write in the message as she could not manage to use the computer in the first place. It went on for a few years, then mobile communication sneaked into Ofelya’s life.
“In 2006 I got my first mobile phone. Emin [another grandchild] went to study in Turkey and I wanted to be able to talk to him, so I got a simple handset. I am still using it, my grandchildren laugh at me as it has no other functions apart from receiving and making calls.”
She is not too fussed, isn’t that what a telephone is for?
Today, Ofelya is a fully-digital granny. In 2016 one of her beloved grandchildren gifted her with a laptop and 14-year-old Nigar, her youngest grandchild, teaches her to use all possibilities of the laptop.
Most of the times, at least.
"Sometimes Nigar comes to teach me but then she ends up glued to the laptop doing her thing until she has to go home. The learning process took a long time.”
Ofelya connects with her family through Skype straight from her living room, watches old films on YouTube, searches on Google, reads the daily news online, and, as an enthusiastic fan of mugham, a traditional Azerbaijani music, she follows concerts online. Her Facebook account has allowed her to connect more closely than ever with her large family.
“It is such an easy way to communicate with people who do not use Skype. I can write to them whenever I want, I can see how they live, what they do,” she states.
Embracing technology rather than resisting it, Ofelya pushed the boundaries of both gender and age and established a closer connection with the young generation - talking the same digital language.