There are a few things that are fundamental to survival in Kenya... food, clean water, shelter, and a cell phone.
As far as I can tell, almost everyone here has cell phones.The women in power suits and pumps in downtown Nairobi have cell phones. The students living in Kibera have cell phones. The newspaper correspondents in Kisii have cell phones. The sustenance farmers in the Rift Valley have cell phones.
Cell phones are a hot item for pickpockets. There is a thriving black market in them. Almost every corner kiosk sells phone credit scratch cards. Entrepreneurs across the country are recharging cell phones from old car batteries, since so many people have no electricity at home.
But there is still a wireless digital divide in Kenya. It is only the poorest and youngest Kenyans who don't have mobile technology.
There are countless articles and theses about how wireless communications tools are helping the developing world leapfrog over lack of land-based infrastructure. You can read more about it here and here.
Giving up Skype and Facebook, mp3s and e-mail was pretty easy during my week of voluntarily living on the quiet side of the digital divide. But living without the cell phone was not so simple.
I don't have a car, so if I need to get around after dark, I usually call a cab. I don't have a land line at home, so contacting people to arrange for meetings or pick-ups was just not possible. That meant a lot of pre-arrangement and a couple of cheating calls.
But living without a cell phone got me thinking about the social hierarchy that emerges through cell phone culture here.
Judi, Wambui and I were sitting in a bar in South B, deep in discussion about dating younger men, when Wambui said, "No. You can't date them. They will never call you."
"They'll just flash you," Judi said.
Most folks pre-pay for their phone minutes, so if people are frugal, they won't initiate a call. They will send you a text message (here, called a SMS), which costs only about 10 cents. If they want to talk to you, but don't want to spend any of their credit, they will flash you: call your phone and quickly disconnect before you pick up. The expectation is that you will call back and cover the costs of the conversation.
For Wambui and Judi, if a guy never calls on his own credit, it's like someone asking you out on a date and then asking you to pay for dinner.
Some US friends and I often talked about how cell phone conversations are becoming a form of performance art in the western world.
The 17-year-old in line at the grocery store in Bangor might seem to be enjoying that strangers are listening in as he talks about the killer party he went to last night. Some political activists pose as fake shoppers having cell phone conversations about how a store's product is made under unfair labor conditions.
Here in Kenya, cell phones speak of much more than politics and performance. Like the question of shoes, what phone you carry and how you use it are indicators of economic and social status.
I am glad that my week in the 70s is over and I can get back to blogging (stay tuned for a flurry of posts). I didn't really miss the plethora of web-based communication tools at my disposal in the twenty-first century. But living without a phone for a week put me on par with the poorest or poor Kenyans. It was dangerous, difficult, and I'm glad that it is over.