Friday, 3 August 2012

A Mobile Phone, Amid the Darkness

David Larish

I just read Amy Spira’s post on this website, “What we lost when we gained the light bulb”, 18 November 2011, in which she detailed the sadness of Nicaraguan townspeople at the prospect of electricity darkening their lives. I want to share a similar experience from my time in Kenya in 2010 but from an altogether different perspective.

I was working at Olmaroroi Primary School, which consisted of a series of sheds haphazardly constructed on dusty, red dirt in Maasai territory in the Rift Valley. The nearest town, Ngong, was a bumpy, 45 minute motorcycle ride away. I stayed with a local family of fourteen, including two wives. They lived in mud brick huts, used a hole in the ground as a toilet and, in the absence of electricity, burned wood for cooking and lit candles when the sun set. There was no running water. The nearest source of it was the communal well at the school, a ten minute walk.

Like Amy, I found myself as far away from technology as I had ever been.

This, in my mind, was a good thing. On my first night, after the older children had finished looking after the cows and goats for the day and after the younger ones had returned home from school, the family gathered in the kitchen, drinking tea, cooking dinner, eating together and then chatting into the night in semi-darkness. I contrasted this with a Western childhood of the Noughties – spending the afternoon on the phone to friends while commentating on the video games I was playing, watching TV during dinner, rushing back to the computer in my bedroom to go on MSN – and I was envious. What I had when I grew up meant that there were a lot of things that I did not have.

The bliss I was experiencing that night was punctured by the shrill beep of a text message which, to my immediate relief, did not sound as if it had come from my phone. In fact, there was confusion as to whose phone it had come from because, as it later emerged, each of the children aged over 13 had one.

My initial thought was that convincing a family who lived without running water or electricity of their need to own multiple mobile phones must have taken some phenomenally effective marketing on the part of the then major Kenyan mobile phone companies, Safaricom and Zain. In fact, these companies had even implemented a system whereby you could buy phone credit and transfer it to loved ones, family or friends (imagine that: ‘happy birthday my brother – here’s enough credit to call me on my birthday’).

I felt that this was a clear instance of these companies exploiting the technologically-starry-eyed family by enticing them to spend the limited money they had on things that they did not need. This view was reinforced when I later became aware that a family member was required every few days to make a trip into Ngong in order to charge a half dozen or so battery-depleted mobile phones at the “electricity shop” that had opportunistically sprung up to service this niche.

I was also concerned that the special traditions held by the family and the atmosphere when the family came together would be eroded by the mobile phone, which I saw as a gateway – both symbolically and practically – to the spectre of other technologies spreading into their lives.

One night towards the end of my stay, I (subtly) raised these issues with those members of the family who were old enough not to have received a mobile phone when they had reached puberty. As they pointed out, I had failed to see the benefits the mobile phone had brought to the togetherness of the family. The family was now able to stay in touch with family members who had moved away for school or work. It was easier for the family to make arrangements for everyone to be in the one place. By keeping in contact with past volunteers who had returned home, the family would reminisce together.

I still have mixed feelings about the impact of the mobile phone on the family, but I now see it in a more balanced light than I first did. In hindsight, it was difficult for me to dissociate my anxiety about having too much technology in my life from my views. I now think that the mobile phone is far less of a threat to the family’s connection and values than the computer, iPod or television – which are a while away yet.

But if I want to know if any of their attitudes have changed, I’ll just ask them next time I Skype their mobiles.

Image by Charles Crosbie, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.


  1. I know exactly what you mean: The possibilities we have led to addiction; we are addicted to being connected. It's hard to imagine a day where you don't check your mails, see what's new on facebook or on your favourite blog. During my last vacation, I had a hard time to keep myself from checking my mails on my smartphone. This addiction to being connected paradoxically makes us spend time with people far away, neglecting those that are near to us.

    But as a former philosophy professor of mine said: The quality of life, and thus, the happiness increases with the increase of possibilities (he always said so countering arguments as "in the old days everything was better"). I think this is true. After all, we have the possibility to just switch off our smartphones.

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