I don’t think of myself as a technophobe, I’m probably a bit out of date but I get the basics and after an adult life of exclusively dating (and finally marrying) geeks, I can even stop my eyes from glazing over when someone mentions Linux. But I have always hated phones; their limitations don’t make up for their convenience in my emotive world. Hearing Chanje’s voice makes the fact that I am not with her worse, not better. Though, as she has previously texted me in the kitchen from my attic bedroom to bring her wine, this does not always apply. I don’t mind other people’s phones, if my companion starts tapping away, shoulders rounded and thumbs angled, I think, ‘oh good, I can daydream for a bit.’ This last especially so since I had Lyra – daydream time is a precious commodity once you (mistakenly) teach your child the power of speech. What I find intrusive is what they do to my own concentration, taking me out of the conversation, thought (nap) or work (nap) I was in the middle of, and forcing me to engage with something else, even if I don’t answer the call. Thus, I hate my phone ringing and this is never a reflection on the caller. I suppose I am a very ‘here and now’ kind of person.
In the UK, we have very prescriptive mores about phone use. One would never take a call in a job interview, or during sex for instance (well, excepting rule 34 and by mutual consent). Further, every couple of months, when there isn’t enough exploding in the world news or national commentary on random acts of jingoistic ball kicking, a journalist trots out with the story ‘children now spend 97 hours a day on screens and are resultingly less intelligent than demented gerbils’. I refer the reader to http://xkcd.com/1227/ for perspective on this one.
The culture of phones here is very different. The mobile phone has revolutionised life in Sub-Saharan Africa. The difficulties most people here face are not because of their poverty, but because of the last 500 years of poverty and exploitation. When Iceland went bankrupt in 2008, after a century of prosperity, I’m betting that they still had gloves in the hospitals, roads that stayed where you put them, and lattes. In Malawi, there was little infrastructure to enable other services and industries to develop. There are very few landlines here, one train track (riding the family of tasty-boks that live on the sidings would be quicker) and only enough electricity generation capacity to keep us lit up for about half the week. Though if you go a couple of miles down the road to Sunnyside, where the Vice President lives, the power mysteriously stays on. But mobile phones are a paradigmatically different technology from the infrastructure of the age of industry. Masts cost little to erect, don’t require much more than a dirt track you can get a jeep down, and handsets are now very cheap.
Mobile phones have made everything possible. You can do your banking with them which is a very good thing, as the cash machines never work and nowhere takes cards. Even if you don’t have a bank account, you can pay other people, pay utility bills, buy things in shops, get public health advice, order a matola-taxi or even, if you still have the energy, call people. It is democratising, to the point that even if you are not on the grid, you can still pop down the local shop and charge your phone at “God is Hope Barbers and Battery Charge”. People can run businesses with a reliable way of contacting and billing their customers and suppliers and you can always make sure your family is safe.
So mobiles have been a massive boon to the Malawian economy. But being English, with the rule-bound, polite to the point of inanity personality that such an origin entails, I find the way people use phones here a little unsettling. My dislike of the invasion of my whimsical musings seems churlish compared to what some Malawians will stop or drop to get the phone. It is normal to answer the phone whilst driving, and then suddenly break whilst in the fast lane of the only dual carriage way to find a pen. Or stop the car in the middle of a roundabout to text (this is not hyperbole). At least he stopped, I guess.
When I was being interviewed by the Senior Nurse at the council, she answered her phone part way through and had a fun chat with someone for over ten minutes, twirling her hair round a pencil, then digging in her desk draw to find a cake recipe. But the most astounding one by far was yesterday at the College of Medicine Sports Centre. The very lovely gym teacher who, whilst leading a ‘cool down’ after circuit training, managed to get his phone out of his hip pocket whilst holding his left foot in his right hand behind his back and continued to demonstrate stretches to the class whilst talking. I laughed so much I fell over, foot still in hand. Then the whole class erupted at the picture of me, laid on the floor, crying with hilarity. So finally, the amused instructor had say he’d call his wife back as he couldn’t hear her over the noise of everyone laughing at the prone white-girl, with her mad hair sticking out, laughing at him.
(not that it’s relevant to the story, but this was the view from my porch yesterday evening. mmmmm)
P.S. I would be very grateful if some of you regular readers, and I know you’re there because I’ve just figured out where the metrics are on WP, would be very kind and make me feel loved by following the blog. I promise not to spam and not to post more than twice a week. It’s just that the ‘9’ followers is a little sad, especially when you know that two of those is my mum, who keeps forgetting her email password and making herself another account. It’s just over here at the top (mum) ——->