Ringing in the 21st century

Of all my treasured possessions, my previous office stands out as my most prized asset because it had an in-house secretary with whom I became very intimate.

She wormed her way into my heart and gradually became the custodian of my dirty little secrets because, even if I wanted to, I couldn’t hide a thing from her.

Nonetheless, my friends told me she was the coolest and classiest catch I’ve had so far.

She would deftly note down my appointments, remind me of upcoming events and keep me in the loop on the latest news and gossip.

And every time I got a call, her lyrical voice strummed my favourite tones as she cuddled next to my ear. But one Friday evening last year while I was hanging out with her in a packed nightclub, some guy swept her off her feet and I’ve never seen her again. She had, as we say in Nairobi, “been taken by the owner”.

It’s not as though we had a beef, but the dude who nicked my Nokia 5800 Smartphone made me feel despondent for quite some time. He’d just vanished with my office and secretary.

I’d become accustomed to being roused early by my phone’s alarm clock, which was set to shrill continuously until I woke up.

Settling back
After a shower and breakfast, I would head to the bus depot, which was usually packed. I would patiently wait for a bus with an empty seat, my white headphones plugged tightly into my ears, as I listened to the titillating morning shows on radio.

On the bus, I would scroll through the Standard and Nation newspapers online, check my emails, and then settle back as I trawled through Facebook and other social sites.

This experience would have been impossible a few years ago, but when three broadband lines snaked their way to our side of the continent — probably the last frontier without broadband technology — a quiet but unusual revolution started brewing.

Millions of us have taken quite a big leap on to the information super-highway, and we now have people who have never used a computer but who are internet savvy just through using their cellphones.

Take my friend Wakianda, who is computer challenged. I helped him open an email account on my computer a year back so that he could communicate with his friends abroad. Since then, his says, he has checked his emails only a few times because the cyber café attendant always seemed busy whenever he needed help, so he gave up. But this year he bought a cellphone that was internet-ready. I then helped him open a Facebook account using his phone and, before long, he knew how to navigate it by himself.

These days I regret that move. Whenever we meet and are talking, he unconsciously starts browsing on Facebook, emailing, googling — he has now become a mwenyeji, an “expert”.

In spite of the fact that I think it is bad manners, I have forgiven him because, like me, the web has snagged another internet junkie.

Now nearly every young person you meet on a bus is busy browsing on a phone on the way home or listening to local bands and downloading mobile applications made by Kenyans.

It’s no fluke that only recently a Kenyan company won a $1-million award from Nokia for developing a cellphone solution for problems facing small and micro-businesses in emerging markets.

It’s going to play a big part in a revolution that is bringing a large number of people into the 21st century, including taxi drivers, shopkeepers and small-scale traders.

But, with millions of Kenyans now accessing the internet, there’s bound to be problems, especially if you have an ear for rumour as we do.

Recently, there was a rumour in circulation on Facebook that advised people not to answer calls from some phone numbers that were coded in red.

It was said these numbers were transmitting high-frequency ultra-sonic sound signals that could cause a brain haemorrhage and death. The news spread fast and by midday people were switching off their phones. By that time, it was now rumoured, five Kenyans had already died while using their phones.

Government officials hurriedly called a press conference and told the public it was a hoax. All the same, many kept their phones turned off the next day.

I was not perturbed by the rumour because I had bought a cheap phone with an ugly green screen and a weak battery to replace my secretary. In spite of it being a last-millennium gadget that is internet-incompatible, it still has some relevance in the 21st century.

Among the small things it did, it could Mpesa. Pesa is Swahili for money. It’s a mobile money transfer service that has trumped Western Union and formal banking services and has millions of unbanked subscribers hooked.

Whenever I make an out-of-town trip, rather than putting my cash into my wallet, I load the money into my phone, which is much safer. And when I reach my destination, I change it into liquid cash from the thousands of Mpesa vendors who dot every street corner in the country.

With this service I pay utility bills, buy groceries at the corner shop, send money to relatives, buy airtime, pay the seamstress, the butcher and also pay for drinks at my neighbourhood local. But lately I have added another app to my analogue gadget. M-kesho.

This is a service by which my phone communicates with a real bank. I can make real-time bank transactions from virtually any corner of the country. I can check my bank balance, withdraw money from my account and also top up using my Mpesa account, get a loan or insurance; it also gives you money on credit if your account has run out of cash.

I have just said goodbye to banking-hall queues. But now I’m facing new problems. Lately I have been prone to impulse buying.

On top of my normal transactions, I bought on first sight a nice pair of jeans for R250, I joined friends on an unplanned road trip that cost me R1 000, took a cab when I should have taken the bus — and now my account is in the red.

Although we usually call a bank’s ATM “Another Terrible Mistake”, my analogue office with an in-house bank teller and an ugly green screen has never warned me that all this time I was operating on credit.

Munene Kilongi is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist

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