Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Can You Hear Me Now?

I’m a big fan of cell phones, cell phone technology, mobile technology, and the laws that shape them. I lived in France and had the chance to see how a mobile communications structure outside of the United States functioned. In France there are a lot of prepaid phone plans, unlocked phones, front-facing cameras, and a nimiety of Nokias; I’m talking about the cool Nokias we don’t get in the States. Before coming to Africa, based on my previous research and experience, I expected cell phones to be unlocked, on prepaid plans, and relatively simple. I expected most of the phones to be made by the manufactures I knew and hopefully some that I didn’t. I didn’t know what to expect of the coverage, and I was hoping to see some mobile banking and credit-as-currency exchange. Checking out the mobile telephony world here in Benin has helped me discover a lot about cell phones, service providers and how things can function outside of a contract, but also about politics, globalization, and a first-hand account of the advancements China and India are making in communications technology.

In America you’re either “IN the network” or you allegedly “have more bars in more places,” you can be “on a 4g network,” or you can have a “top 5.” Whatever your case may be you usually only have one service provider. An exception is if you need two phones because work provides ones, or you’re a drug dealer/pimp who has a spare prepaid phone on which you do “business.” (I guess those reasons are actually the same.) Here in Benin the cell phone companies’ networks aren’t as developed, their coverage isn’t as comprehensive, and therefore the Beninese have numerous cell phones. For example, in the south MTN has the best coverage, but in the northern part of the country it’s Bell Benin and Librecom who get the best reception. Another reason the Beninese have numerous cell phones is because it’s much, MUCH cheaper to call someone on the same network than someone on a different network. Case in point, it cost the same per minute to call someone on a different network who is sitting next to you as it is to call someone an ocean away in America. Because of these reasons you see men, and sometimes women, with multiple cell phones. They carry them in their hands to show off that they can afford two phones. They also pull them out and hold them while being photographed. (Didn’t Sarah Palin pose with her two Blackberrys when she was photographed for Newsweek a few weeks ago?) Most of the time the phones that they have are two cheap Nokias, sometimes they have one nice phone and one not so nice phone, and the way you can tell if someone is a “grand homme” in society is if he has a phone that can support two SIM cards. So, because most people have numerous cell phones the first thing someone asks you when they get your number is what network your on. Which is bizarre, because you can tell what network they’re on by the first two numbers of their cell number. So, if your number starts with 96 or 97 you have MTN, if you have 99 you’re on Glo. It’s also interesting to see the marketing campaigns that then come out based on these two numbers. “New Number, New Life. Go for Glo. Start your life with 99.” We use cell phones as a status symbol in the States, in some circles, but it's much more obvious here in Benin.

I like it when companies take the time to do market research and then adapt products to that market. And, I’m sure this problem isn’t exclusive to Benin. But, the idea of having a phone with two SIM cards kind of confused me at first. How do I choose which SIM I want to use for the text I’m about to send? How do I choose which SIM I want to use for my phone call? Does having two SIMs mean that my phones uses more battery life? How do I choose which SIM I want to use when I go on the Internet?

Because I’m a technophile, and curious, I decided to purchase a “BlackBorry” from a street vendor. Copyright and trademark laws prohibit the sale of cloned phones in America. You can buy them over the Internet and have them shipped here, no problem. But, who wants to buy something from China/BuyCheapPhoneClones.com for a few hundred dollars with no warranty and no guarantee it’s going to work on the network frequencies we use here in America? (They use different cell frequencies in Europe and Asia than we do in the States.) Not being on the same frequencies means you’ll have more dropped calls, “less bars,” and limited access to non-phone features like Internet and music services. This gave me the perfect opportunity to try one of these clones out. And, firstly, I want you all to know that a Blackberry is INFINITELY more intuitive than a BlackBorry. The user interface (UI) on my Blackborry is made to mimic the UI my Blackberry Bold. It actually looks a lot like my Bold with regard to shape and weight. The phone itself has a nice feel to it, but when you start playing with its features you realize that it doesn’t have the technological maturity of a real Blackberry. (Anecdotally, when you’re typing a text message you have to wait at the end of each word until the cursor moves past the letter to hit the space bar or you’ll erase the newly typed letter.) I was explaining this to a Beninese friend and I told him that I don’t have that kind of time on my hands. I’m America, I want things the way I want them at that moment. Especially when I’m typing out a text message. I want the entire process to be as quick and effortless as possible. And this isn’t that. I’ve found that this lack of UI maturity isn’t specific to my Bloackborry and is common in cloned phones, like the Nckia and the Nokla my friends have. Aside from my Blackborry’s flaws there were some interesting features that we don’t get on our phones in the states. My Blackborry had a flashlight on the top, which is rather useful in a country where electricity isn’t expected/always there. My Blackborry also had a TV antenna that telescoped from the top. I was able to watch the local station (ORTB is the name of the station, which is similar to NBC or FOX) at any time during the day through my phone. Another cool feature, which shows up on some American phones, is an FM receiver. In Kerou, my village, and all throughout Benin, the radio is a really popular and effective means of communicating. Most people around town are listening to their local radio stations, and it’s how most volunteers transmit information to the community about workshops and public service announcements. Aside from their flaws, the knock-off phones here in Benin seem rather suited to address a lot of the needs of the Beninese.

(Choosing between SIMs when sending messages and making phone calls turned out to relatively easy as the phone prompts you before doing either. I guess my confusion was founded in my ignorance.)

I see cell phones from all the manufacturers we have back in the States, and definitely some new comers. I see a lot of Nokias. It seems that Nokia has the cheap-yet-sturdy phone market cornered. The phone that most of the volunteers, and most of the people, have is a simple phone, no color screen, black, and perfunctory, made by Nokia. One charge lasts for numerous days, and you could probably run it over and not worry about breaking it. As I’ve said before, a lot of manufacturers are doing market research to adapt their phones to developing markets, and here in Benin where electricity is mainly for the wealthy and even then it frequently goes out, a lot of phones come with flashlights. (There is an old Economist from about seven or eight months ago that details phone adaptation, the influence of Asia makers, and mobile banking. Check it out if you’re interested. It’s one of their special reports.) It didn’t surprise me that there were phones with flashlights, what surprised me is that the only recognizable manufacturer putting flashlights on their phones was Nokia; SonyEricsson, LG, HTC, Samsung, Kyocera, and Blackberry don’t have flashlights. Contrarily, all of the Chinese and Indian clones phones, and even their own labels, have flashlights. Is this because they did market research, or because in the developing world, regardless of where you are, people usually don’t have electricity and if they do it’s shoddy at best? This led me to start looking at the projects that India and China have funded here in Benin to see if they’re doing a better job at serving the development needs of Benin because they’re recently developed (or are developing) themselves, as opposed to western development projects that merely seek impose their own beliefs of development? The Chinese are building hospitals and roads. They’re training new doctors. They’re making products at affordable prices. It’s the same with Indian development. I think they might have some good insight into leapfrog development instead of following the same 200-year path that America took. For example, the Chinese are working with mobile carriers to develop their wireless infrastructures instead of laying telephone lines. That being said, China and India are also flooding the market with cheap batteries that get thrown into the street when they die, and I’m sure all of the products that get banned from the United States and Europe due to safety concerns end up here, as well.

But, fret not: America still has influence when it comes to telecommunications in Benin. Kerekou was the president before the current president, Yayi Boni. Kerekou was actually a dictator in Benin about 30 years ago and then ran for president successfully, twice. While doing some research about telecommunications in Benin before I arrived I came across a political timeline, which led me to some other information. But, it’s from the Internet so no one can guarantee its validity. But, it said that in the mid-nineties during Kerekou’s second presidential campaign, he had a substantial donation from an American telecommunications company. Shortly thereafter Bell Benin communications became a major player in Beninese communications. I haven’t found out too much further as information about company ownership is scarce. (Also, due to my position as an American government worker in Benin I cannot make political declarations or accusations on my blog.) Don’t we have a telecommunications company whose name had Bell in it somewhere? Just something I found interesting.

The Peace Corps has volunteers all over the country and they work in myriad sectors. Volunteers usually leave after their two years are up, but there are a few who choose to stay. Some find love. Some like living in a developing country. Some also see the opportunity to live comfortably with jobs that pay American salaries while living on Beninese budgets. For example, the rent for a beautiful house in the richest part of Cotonou is about $400 to $600 dollars a month. Some of the people who have stayed are working with global development agencies and one “returned” Peace Corps Volunteer works in technological development as a consultant. One day we were all sitting around chatting over beers and I asked her about mobile banking. Per the Economist article I mentioned earlier, many African countries are recognizing the benefits of mobile banking and how it can expand economical development and expand opportunities for the poorer citizens in society to exchange/save money more easily. I asked her whether she knew about mobile banking in Benin and she said that it was stalled out because in Benin anytime a company deals with currency exchange it must be treated like a bank. One major problem with this is that to have a bank account in Benin you must have state-issued identification, and to get this ID you have to have a birth certificate. In most developing countries child birth DOES NOT happen at a hospital. Those who do have children in hospitals are wealthier and those who do not are poor. Thus most children aren’t registered with the states and do not have identification cards. It’s the poor who would be using the mobile banking services the most because they don’t have access bank accounts. To be honest, they’ve probably never been in a bank, much less seen one.

Lastly, I wanted to talk about the culture of cell phones, how people use them, how I think they’re seen, and how that compares to American cell phone usage. In America cell phones are more and more becoming something other than a talking-into-and-someone-talking-back kind of device. We’re sending exponentially more texts than we sent two years ago, we’re updating our facebook status, and shaking our phones to find out which restaurant to go to tonight (Urban Spoon app for iPhone). In the not-so-distant future we’ll be accessing our Netflix and Comcast accounts to watch Avatar and Dexter anywhere we have service. Phones in America are becoming media consumption devices and advanced agenda/calendar/to do list/alarm clocks more than they are communication devices. Here in Benin phones are simple communications devices, but are developing at a rapid clip. Internet is just starting to become more available. Though most don’t understand what the Internet is. They don’t know what a computer does, nor how to use it, much less ever touched one. That being said, the Beninese use their phones to listen to the radio, as they come with FM transmitters, they can watch TV, as some come with analog TV tuners, and they use them as a status symbol, much as we do in the states. It’s rather common to see Beninese men and women walking around the village listening to music from their phones as though they were a boom box. People set them on the tables at the bars to listen to music. And, they’re all listening to the same four songs by the same people. (They love Akon here in Benin, and all over Africa, to be honest.) I don’t know the names of the songs but I know that I hear them all the time. Another feature that I come across a lot is the MTN “beep me” feature. As I said before, most phones are prepaid, and because of this people run out of credit all the time. But, they still want to talk to you. So, there is a feature through MTN that sends a message to someone saying that you would like to call them but you don’t have any credit. This is supposed to imply that you’re to call them back. (As you can probably imagine, this gets kind of annoying when the same people “beep” you every time they want to talk.)

All in all, cell phones are everywhere in Benin. Everyone has them. They’re cheap. They have multiple functions. And I feel that they’re going to be an integral role in Benin’s development. I think it’s really cool to see how people are just coming in contact with something we find so banal in America: a phone that just makes phones calls and sends text messages. Aside from learning about a country that is about five years behind America in mobile technology, I’m excited to get back to the States, get a new phone, and discover all the cool things I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sweet Heavenly Jesus It's Hot Here

I don’t know if you’ve heard this before but it’s real hot here in Africa. And, I know what you’re saying, “it’s hot in America. I know it’s hot. You’re close to the equator. Duh, Brandon, you’re retarded for not knowing how hot it was going to be before you went.” But, let’s be honest, I had an idea about a lot of things before I got to Benin. I knew there would be a lot of bugs, I knew travel would be a bit difficult, and I knew it would be hot. But, as with all the things I thought I knew before coming here I had NO FREAKIN’ CLUE how intense they would be. The bugs are huge, I’m lucky if the taxi I’m in DOESN’T have a cracked windshield and there aren’t 20 people inside, and I might be on the surface on the sun it feels so hot.

I’m not all that savvy with Celsius, but I do know that 40 degrees is not cool, not even tepid, and the temperature, I’m assuming, floats somewhere around 35-45 degrees daily and constantly. I’m not all that sure about that because I haven’t found a thermometer yet in Kerou and I can’t check the weather app on my Blackberry that I don’t have.

When the electricity goes out here in Benin, which happens often, I am forced to light my little living quarters with gas lanterns and candles. Thankfully the lanterns are made of metal, because everything else around here is melting. I have a picture posted that shows how my candle has melted on the bottle-turn-candlestick unlighted. It’s not that it’s turned into a pool of wax, but the candle has bent all the way down to the bottle and looks like a sad cartoon character. All of the chocolate that you all have so graciously sent me has melted in which the containers they were sent. But, fret not, it’s still delicious and I’m still eating it. Karina’s father sent me some lotion to help my feet that are so dry they’re cracked and bleeding and it was more of a crème; it could now be put into a spray bottle for application. If wood melted I’m sure all of my furniture would be in a puddle on the floor. Speaking of furniture, everything around here seems to trap the heat of the day and they radiate it in the evening when I need it to be the coolest. My mattress emits so much heat it could be attached to a thermoelectric generator to power a small boat, or charge a plug-in hybrid. My pillow is like a little portable heater, and, I’m not joking, the wooden chairs that I had made, which are literally make of sticks, radiate heat at night a cause me to sweat. My walls that are made of concrete emit so much heat that I have to sleep in the middle of the room to avoid it, it’s the only thing I can do. We’re not supposed to sleep outside do to security risks, but it’s becoming a more welcomed idea as the season progresses.

All of this heat and all of this sweating means I have to drink a lot of fluids. In America the only hot drinks I drank were, uh… I didn’t really drink any hot drinks. I steep tea and let it sit until it’s chilled; and let’s be honest, those who know me know that I shouldn’t be caffeinated with coffee. So, to handle my addiction to cold drinks I buy little plastic baggies of cold water almost hourly. When I say little baggies of water I actually mean little plastic bags of water. I also buy little baggies of this stuff called “Beesap” which is not bees’ wax, and is not tree sap; nor is it a combination of the two. It’s actually boiled hibiscus leaves, a bit of pineapple, and some sugar. It’s quite delicious, and I had no idea you could even make a beverage from hibiscus leaves, let alone something this delicious. Surprisingly, I drink a lot of cold Coca Cola. Another sidebar, before coming to Benin the only time I drank soda was when it was mixed with something else while out on the town, and said soda was usually Sprite. (BY THE WAY PEOPLE, IT’S SODA NOT POP, deal with it.) Now that I’m here, the sweet and salty mix of an ice-cold Coca Cola literally defines the idea and sensation of refreshing. I don’t understand why Coca Cola has a different taste in America. I actually do and I’m scared of early onset diabetes, but I wish American Coca Cola was this delicious. From time to time I drink a nice ice-cold beer, sometimes it’s not so ice cold, but nonetheless refreshing. Another refreshing little drink is mixing a bit of Coca Cola with your beer. Don’t hate. Finding refreshing beverages isn’t too difficult if there’s electricity, but Some volunteers don’t have electricity in their villages. I feel for them. I can’t imagine what I would do without something cold to help fight this heat, especially because we have to boil our water to get rid of harmful organisms. I want you to imagine this: it’s one trillion degrees, you have no air conditioning, no fan, walls that radiate heat, and no source of cold beverage. That’s rough.

The body is an amazing thing. I don’t know why, or how, but even though I’m from the northeast and I love the cold, snow, and layered clothing, I’ve adapted to the heat. I don’t know if I would call it comfortable, but the sweating actually helps. And, it’s not an overwhelming, body soaking, passing out humidity. Thankfully in the northern part of the country it’s a dry heat. It’s kind of like Arizona: hot and dry. But, I imagine there are a lot more air conditioners and pools in Tempe than in Kerou.

Everyday is a battle here in Kerou: I’m fighting cultural differences, I’m fighting unattentive students, and now I’m fighting jock itch. I’m really not sure which part is most difficult, but I’m doing all that I can to chill out and get the job done.