Sunday, February 28, 2010

Flash Me!

It's not what you're thinking... That's just the ingenious way my Kenyan friends get me (and one another) to pay for their local phone calls. They call a number, let the phone ring once, and then hang up. The recipient of the call (especially I) can't move fast enough to answer it before the disconnection, recognizes the number on the cell phone screen, and then obligingly returns the call. The original caller does not pay. Clever.

There are few land lines here anymore since most of the copper wiring in Kenya has been vandalized, "harvested" and sold. Every time I wear my 150 KSH ($2) handcrafted earrings, I wonder whose telephone wires were sacrificed. The truth is, though, that the infrastructure is so fragile that cell phones are a boon in underdeveloped countries. They are inexpensive tools that enable callers to prepay for calls via computerized Safaricom, Zain or Orange-brand cards, purchased in increments of 10 KSH, or 12 cents, and loaded into a phone. (Ten KSH will probably buy about ten minutes of local air time for the caller.)

Communication means a lot in Kenya, where family, tribe and "connections" provide much-needed support. Ubiquitous cell phones ring from boda-bodas in the countryside, church pews in the city and even hospital beds on our wards. The phones come in handy, too, when it comes time to pay a bill. People can "MPesa" money to one another via cell phone much more efficiently (and much less expensively) than Western Union ever did. "Clever" redux. Fortunately, no one here has yet instructed, "MPesa me!"

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