Friday, March 7, 2014

Phoning Home

  I spent the summer of 1988 on a University of Arizona study abroad program in Guadalajara, Mexico.  In those days, placing a long distance call from Mexico to the U.S. entailed trekking to the telephone and telegraph office, standing in-line, submitting the call request, then cooling my heels for as long as an hour until an operator could connect the call.  I wrote a lot of post cards and letters that summer.  Twenty-five years later, Nicholas D. Kristoff has observed that “More people worldwide now have cellphones than toilets.”

    My first night in Senegal I used the free WiFi in my hotel room to send my brother a Skype video message from my iPhone indicating I had arrived safely.   If I had been willing to pay the roaming charges I could have dialed directly from the phone.  Unfortunately T-Mobile does not have coverage in Senegal.  Getting them to cancel rather than suspend my service was as sticky as breaking up with a boyfriend even though I was not on a contract.  Getting them to unlock my sim card was another roadblock.  “It will take at least 14 days,” the customer service rep explained. 

    My iPhone5 can supposedly accept sim cards from a variety of international carriers but I couldn’t afford to be without a phone for 14 days so I walked into a Sonatel store in Dakar and walked out half an hour later with a prepaid phone.

   For a little less than $20 I got an Alcatel candy bar handset that has a radio and a built-in flashlight along with an Orange sim card.  While the fee per minute varies, calls to other Orange subscribers within Senegal are inexpensive.  Many people here keep sim cards from several different carriers on hand.  I observed my seatmate on the Air France flight that brought me to Dakar swapping out sim cards as she placed calls to various people before take off and after we landed.

    Africa is the mother of telecommunications technology.  Long before the period of European contact, the Yoruba people had designed hourglass-shaped drums that could mimic the intonation patterns of their spoken language.  Drummers hold talking drums under their armpits and vary the pitch by squeezing the tension cords attached to the two drum heads.  The sound waves carrying talking drum messages can travel 4-5 miles, far enough for another drummer to relay the signal to the next village.  18th century Europeans observed that talking drum messages could travel faster than a courier on horseback.  Fear that drummers would rally "flash mob" slave revolts led North American slaveholders to ban African-style drums and drumming, yet Africans and their descendants carried on their percussive traditions by stamping their feet, clapping their hands, and creating vocal percussion riffs that evolved into present day beat boxing.

  Although the telegraph, telephone, and radio eventually eclipsed the talking drum, according to Paul Bright, Africa is now the second largest mobile phone market in the world with 600 million subscribers.  While smartphone penetration is currently 3-17% of the population on the continent of Africa, Jon Evans of Tech Crunch predicts that:
when the smartphone revolution hits the developing world, that’s when things are going to get really interesting, because it will also be their computer revolution and Internet revolution, all at the same time. (­‐phones­‐are-­‐not‐the­‐future/ accessed 7/24/12)
In other words, the "mothership" is about to drop 500,000 megawatts of P. Funk power and I am jazzed that chariot finally picked up my signal and swung down to let me ride.


  1. You look happy to be home.

    The ability to communicate via modern technology with those who have not yet made it back is a blessing.


  2. Paulette,

    It's great to see that smile again! Thanks for the enlightening and entertaining posts. Please share more (so I can be there vicariously).


  3. Ditto the previous comment on your smile! You look great, and of course your insights into the past, present, and future of telecom are excellent...

  4. You are one of my 11. I nominated your blog for the Liebster Blog Award. Read about it here.


    1. Hi Debbie,
      Thanks for your steadfast support.