New Internationalist

Good to talk

Issue 365

Mobile phones reinforce oral traditions and create new opportunities in Africa

The cellphone has brought the past into the future by reinforcing Africans’ oral traditions. Their insatiable appetite for mobiles has made the continent a profitable market for the high-tech gadgets, which were introduced only a decade ago.

The proliferation of cellphones is changing Africans’ relationships with one another, argues Anthony Zwane, a sociologist with the University of Swaziland: ‘Cellphones are tied to social status and financial well-being, and so we’ve seen a reverse in attitude toward them as they have gotten more popular. When they were new, rich people flaunted them to show they were connected. But now every bus conductor and street vendor has a cellphone. They’ve become the people’s way of communicating. It’s still harder to get an old-fashioned landline phone. So, the rich want to show they are disconnected. Cellphones are now banned from country clubs and upscale restaurants.’

Ronnie Mkhombe, marketing manager of MTN-Swaziland, the country’s only cellular telephone provider, concurs: ‘People are great talkers. Cellphones allow average Africans to entertain each other through conversation, which is what Africans have always done. It’s a relatively inexpensive entertainment.’

The more vociferous a people tend to be, the greater the measurement of cellphone impact: the US has 1,000 times Nigeria’s GDP per capita, but revenue earned from an average Nigerian cellphone is twice that of an American user.

Traditional African culture, with its emphasis on palaver and oral storytelling, boosts phone use as a means of social and family contact. In contrast, you find a more terse type of communication in the West because people don’t like to “waste time” on the phone,’ said Connie Manuel, a business consultant in Maputo, Mozambique.

For a country with a low level of economic activity relative to the developed world, Nigeria has a high level of minutes of use: the average cellphone is used for 200 minutes per week, compared to 154 minutes per week in France, 149 minutes in Japan, 120 in Britain, and 88 in Germany.

Penangnini Touré, a UNICEF consultant in Mali, says: ‘People give the number of a friend’s cellphone to other friends, and they leave messages. The friend becomes a communications centre. There is only one cellphone, but many people use it. This has led to entrepreneurship. People will invest in a cellphone, and they charge other people to use it.’

Most intriguing is the way clever entrepreneurs have handled the Ghanaian hills that can cut off cellphones from transmission signals, rendering the instruments inoperative. The answer is ‘cellphone towers’. These are tall towers built out of timber and stones on top of hills, with a platform on top. Up there, you can pick up a cellphone signal. A user pays 600 cedis (one US dollar is equal to 8,700 cedis) to climb a ladder and make a call. It’s much easier than taking a bus to a place where there’s a signal.

A person who is a communications centre becomes important,’ said Sam Ndwandwe, a communications specialist in Swaziland. ‘That is why Swaziland’s 300 chiefs want the Government to give the chiefs’ runners cellphones. The chief’s runner is traditionally the voice of the community, and the chief’s conduit to the people. This is the 21st century. How can an African chief’s runner not have a cellphone?’

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