Africa's Information Society and the Culture of Secrecy

Article excerpt

EVERYONE needs and wants to communicate, and they do so with the tools at hand. Africa's needy urban people are using the most readily available communication technology for them, mobile phones, in innovative ways. But there is still a question over whether this access gives them true inclusion in the global 'information society'--the people with access to communication technologies and the information they share.

The striking thing about mobile phone technology is that where it is available, it is just about the most egalitarian communication technology available. It is well known that the mobile phone density far exceeded the fixed-line telephone density just one or two years after its introduction in most parts of Africa.

Certainly, as with other communication technologies, there are large imbalances in access to mobile phones, with the dividing line running between capital cities and rural areas, the busiest zones and those less busy. But provided that policy-makers and mobile phone operators ensure the provision of a fair coverage of the territory, many people find ways to access and use mobile phones and spread the costs, despite a scarcity of money and resources.

An overview of the profile of mobile ownership, access and use tells us a lot about the situation of most Africans in the information society.

Across Africa from Dakar to Maputo, there is a particular trend in mobile phone ownership. A cell phone can circulate in a family from one person to another: if one person is expecting an important call, he or she might keep the phone with them the whole day, making it difficult to contact other members of the family, including the individual who actually bought the phone set.

In this context, the cell phone becomes a versatile tool, with the 'owner's' identity changing from one day to the next, whereas elsewhere that tool is characterized as being highly individualistic. In such situations, the optimal use of the mobile phone is ironically still to use it as a fixed phone, keeping it at home and making it potentially useful for the whole family.

Another widely used money-saving device is the 'beep-call'--made by bipadores (beepers) as they are known in Mozambique.

This allows people to contact mobile phone owners by sending 'beeps', that is, dialling the number and then ending the call before it incurs charges. A 'beep' call is usually a request for the mobile phone owner to return the call, but it can also be used as a pre-arranged message ('I'll beep you when I'm leaving work').

In some ways, 'beeps' are used to redistribute the financial resources available through mobile phone networks, so that the maximum number of people can be part of the contemporary communication society: those with little or nothing claim contributions from those who have, or who have much more.

In fact, the divide is not just a simple question of financial resources--it can also be a gender divide. In personal or private interactions it isn't proper for a man to send a 'beep' (requesting a call back) to a woman, even if he's dead broke! I have seen an unemployed man receive 'beeps' from a lady with a rather good job who was aware of his situation. Traditionally, because the man controls the material resources, he is expected to pay.

Users in Mozambique have gone a step further in developing a system of free calls--they have discovered that one phone company, MCel, starts charging calls from the third second after the connection is established. So users created the bip falado--the 'spoken beep'--which consists of calling a mobile, speaking in less than two seconds and then hanging up.

Many conversations are conducted in this way, with two people calling alternately and giving the cue to one another in a series of short questions and answers, without disbursing a penny. …