To beep or not to beep?

Mobile phones – don’t you just love them? From almost anywhere in Tanzania you can reach into your pocket, grab your phone, dial your friend and talk to them for hours, or just send them a short text message. You could be on top of Kilimanjaro or the middle of the Serengeti. You could be on the dalladalla or in your bath. The barriers of communication have fallen to a chorus of ring-tones.

But as with any technology there is a learning curve attached. The people who acquire the devices have to learn how to use them, and society in turn must learn to accommodate the devices we come to take for granted. Between the device and society a tension grows and this tension manifests itself in our lives as annoyance! So here are my five most annoying things about mobile phones in Tanzania:

Beeping

It is late at night. My body is tucked up warm and safe in bed, my mind is just beginning to drift away into gentle dreams – sitting with a laptop in a sun dappled corn field, programming beautiful web pages. What is that sound in the distance, getting louder and more insistent – it sounds like the William Tell Overture played on a stylophone. I jump up; unravel myself from the mosquito net and dash across the room to the flashing, buzzing mobile phone. My hand grasps it and the ring immediately stops. Still bleary eyed, I return to bed, my head hits the pillow, and my mind swims off into a land of circuits and microchips. Bleep-bleep-bleep goes the phone, and once again I leap out of bed, run to the phone and this time answer it but they hang up immediately. Gah! I am a victim of the phenomenon of “beeping” – a friend is trying to call me, but they don’t have credit on their phone, or they don’t want to pay. They are hoping I will see they have just called and ring back. They will beep and beep until I do so. So I check for missed calls on my phone and press to call the last missed call.

Number hopping

Hello comes the answer, sounding as if they are surprised anyone just rang. Who is this? I bark. Daniel he replies. Who are you? Why did you just ring me? I demand of this Daniel – I don’t know any Daniels. I have a small shop on Sokoine Road – someone was just here trying to beep you from my phone – they just left he explains. Do you know who
it was?
I inquire. Never seen them before. He hangs up. Who was trying to call me? Probably one of my many friends who never call from their own phone – the battery is always dead or they are out of credit so they borrow someone else’s. I never know who it is calling because no-one sticks to one number. I climb back into bed and am just beginning to drift back off when the phone starts beeping again.

Unsigned SMS

This time it is a text message again from another unrecognised number – I BEEPED U JUST NOW – Y U NOT REPLY? I ND HLP. MEET AT SHOPRITE IN 1 HR. Who is this person waking me in the middle of the night asking for help? Why didn’t they sign the message with their name? I call the number back – it is Daniel again – This is my other phone. Your friend sent a message. They have gone now. Argh! Why have they combined beeping and number hopping with an unsigned SMS so I can’t tell who it is? Now I am going to have to put clothes on over my pyjamas and call a cab to meet this person at Shoprite.

Unreliable reception

The cab pulls up to my house and I negotiate an extortionate price to Shoprite and climb in. We are driving down the Nairobi Road when I hear a familiar ringing. The driver grabs his mobile phone and enters into an extremely interesting conversation – Hello? he says. Hello! he shouts. Can you hear me? Hello? He hangs up. The phone rings again.
Hello! Can you hear me now? Yes? What? Say that again! Now we have come into better range he can get on with his chat about football.

One ear to the phone, no brain behind the wheel

Driving along with one hand to his ear and the other switching between wheel and gear stick the cab driver arrives in Arusha chit chatting about the fortunes of Simba, Beckham and Michael Owen. We come to a bend, but the driver is too engrossed to steer, and the car thuds into the drain, everyone hurled forwards. Steam pours from the hood of the car as we stagger out to compare nose bleeds. His phone is bust, so I reach for mine in order to call for an ambulance – but the phone lights up with the message “Low Battery”, gives a beep more like a sigh then fades away.

Mobile phones – don’t you just love them?

Originally published in Arusha Times 282

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