Every Ugandan has a cell phone but ….

Just a week ago while I was sound asleep, my cell-phone rang at 2 in the morning-then just as quickly it stopped.  I went back to sleep and a half hour later the same and then once again -- the same.  Finally I understood; someone is trying to get hold of me from Uganda, theyBest Price Gorilla Safaris are “beeping me”.  I went back into my bed smiling.  Why did I not remember?  How could I forget so quickly?  I smiled as I went back to sleep at 3:30 am.

Phones in the city and every villageYou might ask, what is thing called “beeping”?   It is the African way to get in touch with you if you no more airtime on your phone.  When one is out of minutes and the incoming call is free, and you call a friend who might have airtime or as other say, minutes.

Africa has dramatically changed in the last 10 years’ simply because cell phones became available and affordable.  Today you rarely meet someone in the city that does not have one.

Cell phones have also meant some innovations that we in the West do not enjoy presently.  Just last month in Kenya, a new service was provided by two phone companies and the system is called M-Pesa where you actually can send money via a text message to someone else in Kenya.  A fabulous system that will revolutionize the way money is handled in Africa, since most people do not use the banking system.  All you do is go to a cell phone provider, put so much money on your phone and you are ready to transfer shillings to mother, father, children or anyone else via a text message. (This system has actually been working in the Philippines for some time and it is now available in Uganda.

I have driven all over East Africa using my cell phone and rarely did I hit a dead spot.  I can call the USA, Canada, anywhere in the world and be on the phone with people there in a minute.  It was only when the generator went off at a game park that I was suddenly without service for an hour.  I have experienced that in Washington State where my phone drifts over to the network on the Canadian side just minutes away.

Tonight I just read where Motorola has fixed this by using windmills instead of generators with the GSM towers.  They have been testing in Namibia but will soon use it in other parts of Africa and just maybe at that Game Park Lodge.

The cell phone has changed life in Africa; life in Uganda and with it there is a whole other culture, other ways of handling the cell phone which can make one smile since we do not understand.  For instance when in Kampala a few months ago, someone beeped repeatedly, one of the cooks said to me, “You are being beeped--they want you to call back.” Callbacks cost the caller but not the person being called, unlike in the USA; therefore, it has birthed this whole cultural phenomenon of beeping.

One of the most amusing incidents occurred when I walked into the courtyard during lunchtime -- everyone eating away and a Shalom asked me “Jon, can I use your phone for one unit” (minute)?  I responded with a smile and said, “Every Ugandan has a phone but no airtime and no minutes.”  Everyone laughed, except the Shalom who turned smiling, said," I have no phone”…touché.

Phones are priceless possessions -- while walking on the street one night I encountered a young woman who was crying and shouting, “They stole my phone”!  I asked if I could help and she came back asking me if I had minutes so she could call her stolen phone with its number – but the call as we both knew would happen, went unanswered.  SIM card removed and another inserted, they are just few thousand shillings.

Phones start at $20 for a new on; SIM cards and air time are sold everywhere.  Just ask your waiter and he will pull them out of the plastic bag by the cashbox.  It is simply amazing.  Everywhere there are booths open from morning to night selling, Cell Tel, MTN, or some other phone card system.  People stand there scratching off the metallic looking paint and enter the number into the phone for more airtime minutes

It is the “pay as you go” system since a local phone call can vary from 12 to 17 cents per minute; while a call to the US or anywhere in Europe is 30 cents a minute--expensive --but it allows people to stay in touch with family, friends and business associates.  Text messaging is used extensively due to its lower cost.  For many Ugandans the cell phone is one of their most prized possessions keeping them in touch with those that they deeply care for.

Yesterday it was the cell phone that came to Uganda; today it is the computer café that is everywhere, filled with people locked into Yahoo checking their email--writing relatives and friends throughout the world, wherever the Ugandan Diaspora has taken them.

I printed out my boarding pass, when I left Uganda at one such Internet café and a young woman said to her friend,  “I need to buy more airtime”….hmm.

So when I go back to Africa this fall and your phone gets one of those one ring “beeps”—it just might be me…jon


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Every Ugandan has a Mobile Phone ...but no airtime

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