Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – The magic of the mobile phone


I had to laugh as I sat in the back of a taxi last week listening to the lyrics of a pop song that went like this: ‘I’ll give you my love, my life, my phone.’ Huh?! Apparently this songstress (whom I presumed to be African, but this tune may well be out in Europe too – ?) rates her phone up alongside life and love. Well, it seems she’s not alone.

It is hard not to notice the spread of the mobile phone in Africa. It’s reach is astonishing. In a country where some estimate that 80% of the population is without electricity or running water in their homes, and less than 20% have a bank account – almost 50% of the country owns a mobile phone! (I often wonder where all these phones get charged if there are 30% of the people with a phone but no electricity, but I suppose there are ways around that. Our staff come and charge theirs at our house, for example).

The huge leaps in mobile phone technology have not been missed over here either. In fact it’s created a very odd phenomenon – a sort of technology generation gap.

Before the development of the mobile phone there was really only face-to-face communication. Land lines, though there were some, were invariably very difficult to lay and maintain long distance (not least because the distances required are enormous and the terrains they must cross are not easy). And in towns where distances are shorter the copper wires are worth money and so are frequently stolen. So no land lines.

Plus, most people will never have used a computer, or a laptop, or an iPad. Over the five years I’ve been in Mwanza a few internet cafés have popped up and some schools have computer rooms, but very few and they are very outdated. So, essentially the vast majority of people here have never really had the opportunity to learn computer skills. That means no internet, no social media, no email, no instant world-wide communication which we have all learned to enjoy over the past 20-30 years.

But what has happened instead is that the mobile phone is King. By waiting for technology to reach its current levels, Tanzania is suddenly in a position to play catch up, and it’s doing it pretty fast. Other countries are slowly moving away from the cumbersome desktop computers, Tanzania is in a position to do that in an instant.

Network here is pretty impressive, too – I’ll never forget my brother chatting to Richard Branson (who was a client of his at the time) whilst we sat in the base of the Ngorongoro Crater and a rhino nonchalantly wandered by! Yes, there are bad days when I can’t get a line out or can’t hear anyone, but by and large, for a country this size, it’s not bad. By comparison, when I visit England I often find myself cursing as I drop into a networkless-valley.

And with this network and the rapid sale of phones and SIM cards; new initiatives for roaming between countries; the ability to purchase data bundles at reasonable prices (I can keep my phone in internet for just $20 per month); suddenly half the population can now begin to access 30 years worth of technology development – independent news coverage, FaceBook, Wikipedia… Ok, that’s not entirely true. Of course not everyone will have a ‘smart phone’, some phones are just made for making phone calls and perhaps for waking you up in the morning! Some might be intermediates with the capacity to store music or take photos. But there is a huge market for the smart phones (even the thieves know this- Just as they do around the world!)

There’s nothing cooler than a Maasai in full regalia, with an iPhone to his ear, or nodding to his apple earphones as he appreciates a song! I still reckon that would make one of the coolest ad campaigns ever – I said it first! I must make a point of photographing that when I next get the opportunity – this is all I have right now.
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Actually, I have also loved the people who haven’t seen it all before – what’s not to love about the amazing wide eyes of a person who lets you take a photo on your phone and then gets to see the image on the screen? I recently had a local shoe-maker invite all his friends over to see how I could zoom right into his eye just by moving my fingers on the iphone screen. It’s good to see that sense of wonder. We forget and take this amazing technology for granted. I remember I had exactly the same reaction as my shoe-maker when I first saw my brother’s iPhone 3G back one Christmas (was it as recent as 2008?).

There are some irritations about mobile phones here, though. For example, people will sit in a beautiful quiet place and play their tinny mobile music on the phone speaker as loud as it will go, with no awareness of anyone else. Also the personalized ring tones are much loved here, as is download music or preaching to play instead of a ring tone when you call them. Hearing songs of praise or a church recording when you call – be it Muslim, Christian or whatever – is a little ‘in your face’ I feel. But my pet hates go in order as follows:

3. The annoying message that says ‘jaribu tena badai’ (try again later) when you can’t get a line.

2. People driving on the phone and slowing right down to a snail’s pace, or just swerving all over the road. (It’s banned for a reason in most first world countries, but here the effect it has on drivers is totally incredible!).

1. Kids who SMS in code and then think they can get away with writing everything like that – including their GCSE and A-level exam essays! I’m all for the evolution of language, but you need to know what’s appropriate where!

On the upside, mobiles are changing everything for the youth of Africa. They are better informed, safer (unless they’re driving!), better able to communicate and given a voice as world citizens by this technology. It is amazing to witness this dramatic development. I just hope they do ultimately realise that valuing life and love over their phone is still important!

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4 responses

  1. Geraldine valente

    Safaricom had an ad with a Masai on his bicycle in the middle of the bush talking on his mobile….I remember everyone in the cinema cracking up whenever it was shown, we are all so used to it now. I could tell my story of stopping on a deserted road to help an elderly African woman who had her hand almost severed by a thief because she wouldn’t let go of her mobile phone…but I won’t because it is too sad!

    February 18, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    • Yes I remember that horrible tale. Gutted my advert idea is already old news in Kenya! Oh well, looks like I won’t be making my millions in advertising!

      February 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm

  2. shane grantham

    good story from a brilliant writer

    February 20, 2013 at 3:40 am

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