Sunday, 28 June 2009

Now you can talk!

You are inches away from God is Good Telephone Centre – a rickety structure with rusted metal roofs. The man inside the cubicle is ranting on the mobile phone. You imagine his wife on the other end, defiant, bellowing back. You picture her at her oven hot home, tapping her foot on the floor, waving at the kids, and urging them to be quiet. Noisy motorcycles rattle past. A skinny dog barks. This is Lagos.

In the hotel room, you switch on your television set. The presenter announces that Africa is now the world's fastest-growing cell phone market. The number of mobile users in Africa is growing at double the rate of the rest of the globe. From 1999 through 2004, mobile subscribers in Africa jumped to 76.8 million, from 7.5 million, an average annual increase of 58 percent.

The revelation tickles your ears, takes you by surprise. Your cold fingers clutch the coffee table. You have never thought Africans to be great telephone users. How could these people, with their tribal strives and diseases, afford the luxury of a telephone? They were too poor - living on $2 a day or less, they were supposed to be too poor to justify corporate investments in mobile telecommunications outside the more prosperous continents. The newscaster takes you on a voyage, tells you that when African nations began to privatize their telephone monopolies in the mid-1990's, and competitive operators began to sell air time in smaller, cheaper units, mobile phone use exploded. Demand for air time was so strong in Nigeria that from late 2002 to early 2003 operators there were forced to suspend the sale of SIM cards, while they strengthened their networks.

In the beginning, people in the remote villages were so eager for service that they built ‘treehouses’ to catch signals from distant mobile phone masts. Beads of perspiration appear on your forehead. You and your Western friends would have invoked the laws of health and safety. Risk assessment. Fire drills. Evacuation. Yesterday, you met an old woman unable even to write her last name, telling customers to call her mobile phone if they wanted to buy the akara she sold. Time stood still and framed for you then. You stood and watched the woman, in her pale blue dress.

The sun is setting. The sky wraps around itself a purple hue. It makes you want to weep. You have always known Africans to be ingenious. Look at what they did to the English language. They added a bit of this and that, and came out with the Pidgin language. But you didn’t think that they would carry their ingenuity over to the mobile phones. In order to save calling units, most people in Nigeria resort to a practice called ‘flashing’ which means just to dial a number, let it ring once or twice and then hang up before the person called is able to touch a button. In Kenya, they have introduced a service called M-Pesa. This is simply an extra line on the mobile phone menu that says: "Send Money". With this, people go to an office, transfer funds onto their phone account, and then send them to their friends, or family, or anybody else with a mobile. The receivers then go to an office, show the code on the mobile and some ID, and collect the cash.

Music oozes from the TV. You feel comforted, becalmed by the African beats. Analysts have agreed that the technology revolution has come to African countries via the mobile phone, not the personal computer, as it did in America and Europe. And just as the internet encouraged the creation of some dotcom firms, the mobile phone boom in Africa may create the same sort of businesses, but tailored to local needs.

You become aware of your heart thumping, of the blood thudding in your ears. By the year 2012, around 485-million people in Africa will be mobile phone users. Increasingly mobile phones firms in Africa are encouraging users to venture online via their handsets.

You have always loved literature. In Things Fall Apart, you discovered the rich Igbo culture. South Africans have now launched the first text based entertainment, fiction written specifically for the mobile phone. Novel Idea inspires innovative content creation on the mobile platform. The pilot, which launched on 7 July 2008, is apparently the first time short fiction has been specifically commissioned for delivery via mobile phones in Africa. It has also been a unique way to promote professional South African writers.

The mobile phone revolution tells us of the ability of the silenced to triumph over adversity. It tells us that Africa has not been swallowed by history; Africa too knows how to swallow history!

1 comment:

Kokomma said...

"Now you can talk" is a brilliant work. African hi-tech indeed! Good job!