MOBILE PHONE IMPACT

We're telephone Kenyans: The people who are not there

We've delegated almost all tasks to this ubiquitous, magical little gadget.

In Summary

• One day we will be able to vote by mobile phone. That day, we will become the electronic electorate; the voters who are not there.

• Mathew would have chuckled at that. And Joe Adama would have written about it, right after calling me in the middle of the night to bounce ideas off the wall.

Bishop Joseph Oduor delivers a sermon during the burial of Matthew Gathigira, aka Joe Adama, in Ngaini village, Mathira division, Nyeri county, on July 11 last year.
WORD SMITH: Bishop Joseph Oduor delivers a sermon during the burial of Matthew Gathigira, aka Joe Adama, in Ngaini village, Mathira division, Nyeri county, on July 11 last year.
Image: JAMES KAMAU

The year 2018 was a seminal year for me. It’s the year the little boy inside me finally died, killed off by an onslaught of events. Someday I will write about these events. For now, suffice it to say, the onslaught started off on a devastating note with the death of Mathew Gathigira, aka Joe Adama, a senior journalist who also happened to be one of my closest friends. Someday I will write about him too. [He died on July 3, 2018.]

I will write about the phone calls that used to come in from him at odd hours of the night, on odd days of the week, to harangue me with the odd subjects that were on his mind. During one of these calls, he introduced me to a terrifying poem called The Man Who Was Not There and then attempted to make me see the connection between the poem and the mendacity of the Kenyan ruling elite. I tried. He may also have been talking about the Mossad, the world’s most lethal spy agency, but I digress.

In recent days, Mathew’s theme of those who are not there has come back to haunt me as I contemplate the profound impact of the mobile phone on our lives. This ubiquitous, magical little gadget is so invaluable, that we have delegated almost all the tasks of modern life to it. As a result, we have become the people who are not there. We have become, to coin a phrase, Telephone Kenyans.

 

There are various kinds of telephone Kenyans in all walks of life. You are probably one of them.

TELEPHONE FARMERS

If one examines the matter honestly, one could say the trend of telephone farmers was ignited by the radio. Driving to work every morning, whether in their cars or matatus, Kenyans were assailed by fantastic stories of bargains to be had in land purchases. Listeners were assured that all they had to do to get instant six-figure returns was to buy a plot from a land buying company, then finance the establishment of a greenhouse on the property. They would feed the nation and become millionaires into the bargain.

Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Tinder and other apps have made it so convenient to bond with another human being electronically that even romantic relationships now move rapidly from 'How are you?'  to wedding bells in the blink of an eye! Love begins on the mobile phone nowadays. And when it’s over, it dies the same way.

Kenyans love their pyramid schemes. So they dutifully took out bank loans and invested in the Green Revolution. Since they had to work in the city and could only make quick dashes to their 'farms' on the weekends, the mobile phone became the only way to monitor their agricultural investment.

The seedlings were watered from Nairobi via the phone. Herbicides were administered from Nairobi via the phone. Fertiliser was added from Nairobi via the phone. Everything was done from Nairobi. If the greenhouse was lucky, it saw its owner a few times a month and on harvest day. 

TELEPHONE RELATIONSHIPS

One of the great regrets of my life is that my relationship with my buddy Mathew was largely a telephone relationship. We lived too far apart to see each other frequently. I lived in Athi River, he lived in….well, he moved around a lot. Good luck finding him. Still, I should have made more of an effort to meet more frequently because the few times we did meet up, it was legendary.

 
 

One night, over drinks, he pointed out a dapper older gentleman wearing a dark suit and horn-rimmed glasses, standing alone by the edge of the bar counter. He was drinking whisky. The guy looked like David Mwiraria. I assumed he was a banker. But when he was out of earshot, Mathew clarified that the gentleman was an assassin responsible for a few high-profile deaths that I have heard about, and many that I never will. He did this in that conspiratorial, amused tone Mathew always adopted when he was letting you in on a secret.

Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Tinder and other apps have made it so convenient to bond with another human being electronically that even romantic relationships now move rapidly from 'How are you?'  to wedding bells in the blink of an eye! Love begins on the mobile phone nowadays. And when it’s over, it dies the same way.

Need a cab? You don’t have to walk around to look for one anymore. Your mobile phone will get one for you. Need a truck? Or a pick-up? The Amitruck app will get one for you at the click of a button.

TELEPHONE BANKS 

Speaking of apps, the traditional brick-and-mortar banks are, at least in Kenya, old school. These banks created a vacuum when they decided that the cap on interest rates made Kenyan borrowers too risky to lend to. So the fintech industry moved in to fill the vacuum. 

Consequently, Tala, Branch, Mkopo Rahisi, KCB, MPesa and many others have gradually sunk their claws into the Kenyan borrower. Not to be left behind, Safaricom has joined the party with Mshwari and Fuliza. The interest rates being charged by these apps are extraordinary. And therein lies the irony of the interest cap law; it has caused an increase in interest rates.

I could go on about telephone employees, telephone students and other kinds of telephone Kenyans, including the telephone criminals running mobile extortion and con rackets behind the safety of Kamiti prison. Nigeria even occasionally has a telephone president who runs the country from a hospital bed in London.

The point is clear; in the Mobile Phone era, we don’t have to get up to do anything. The country can operate plenty well through the mobile phone. 

I was fascinated when I recently renewed and downloaded my driving licence through my phone. So even our government is gradually becoming a telephone government.

One day we will be able to vote by mobile phone. That day, we will become the electronic electorate; the voters who are not there.

Mathew would have chuckled at that. And Joe Adama would have written about it, right after calling me in the middle of the night to bounce ideas off the wall.